Last Thursday, the Toronto Star ran a front-page story on the Gardasil vaccine, describing the vaccine as having a “dark side”: debilitating illnesses. The headline and the story describe a supposed relationship between the vaccine and an array of serious adverse events:
What was the basis for the Star’s claim that the vaccine causes harm, and that risks are not being disclosed? The story primarily focused on interviews with women and their families who attribute different events to the vaccine. The Star went on to analyze Health Canada’s database and claims it found 50 “serious” incidents, including 15 hospitalizations. Studying the US adverse event database, the Star reported it found thousands of cases of harm, including more than 100 deaths. The implication the Star makes is clear: Harms and risks are not being disclosed to vaccine recipients. Yet while the cases the Star reviews are tragic and in some cases heartbreaking, the relationship to the vaccine is not established in any of the cases it profiles. A single sentence acknowledged the lack of actual evidence linking the vaccine to any of the adverse events it describes:
In the cases discussed in this article, it is the opinion of a patient or doctor that a particular drug has caused a side-effect. There is no conclusive evidence showing the vaccine caused a death or illness.
Relying heavily on anecdote instead of objective scientific evidence, The Star implies causation when all it could show is correlation. The result was a classic “false balance” picture painted about the HPV vaccine’s safety – a gift to the anti-vaccine movement, which also relies heavily on anecdotes and emotion, rather than scientific facts. False balance is always a fear with vaccine reporting, particularly because “false balance” propagates unfounded fears, implying a scientific “debate” when the consensus says otherwise. Given viewing anti-vaccine messaging for a even few minutes can decrease intentions to vaccinate, it is essential, from a public health perspective, to communicate vaccine safety information responsibly. But that didn’t happen with the Star’s vaccine story. From the headline through the reporting, the story failed to communicate risk and benefit effectively. This is unfortunate, because the the HPV vaccine has been studied – extensively. There is robust, high-quality data that establishes its safety. And the Star presented no evidence to demonstrate that the harms of the vaccine have been misstated. Continue reading