In yesterday’s post on Dr. Paul Offit’s article in USA Today, Voices: Our children are at risk and here’s why, we saw how he overstated the number of measles deaths that existed in the pre-vaccine era by almost 100% and made a scientifically unsubstantiated claim about the efficacy of the vaccine.
Offit’s unsubstantiations didn’t end there — he also made erroneous and scientifically unsubstantiated claims about human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can lead to cervical cancer. Specifically, Offit claimed that “in about 20 years, thousands more will die from cancers caused by human papillomavirus” because “parents chose not to immunize [their children].”
Does Offit have any basis for his claim that the HPV vaccine will offer long-term protection, such that thousands will be spared over the next 20 years? He does not. According to Professor Diane Harper, the scientist who was the principal investigator for Merck, the pharmaceutical company that developed the Gardasil HPV vaccine, “we do not have evidence that Gardasil offers efficacy any longer than five years.” Harper did speculate on scenarios in which the duration of efficacy lasted as long as 15 years, saying in a 2010 email interview: “If duration is at least 15 years, then vaccinating 11-year-old girls will protect them until they are 26 and will prevent some pre-cancers, but postpone most cancers. If duration of efficacy is less than 15 years, then no cancers are prevented, only postponed.”
It’s possible, of course, that Gardasil will provide long-term protection. But Offit’s quote would still have been wildly misleading because Gardasil doesn’t save lives in modern countries, where women obtain Pap smears.
As Harper explained it: “Pap smears alone prevent more cervical cancers than can the vaccines alone.” Even getting both — the vaccine plus Pap smear screening — does little good. “The combination of HPV vaccine and screening in the U.S. will not decrease the incidence of cervical cancer to any measurable degree at the population level.”
While a typical informed parent would have difficulty discerning the logic in vaccinating his daughters, the parent’s logic in avoiding Gardasil in favor of the Pap smear is crystal clear. “Pap smears have never killed anyone,” Harper stated. “Gardasil is associated with serious adverse events, including death.” Her unambiguous conclusion: “Pap smears are absolutely the way to go.”
Harper’s credentials in the HPV sphere are stellar — she’s one of the few recognized experts in this field in the world. In fact, she was also hired by Merck’s competitor, GlaxoSmithKline, to be the principal investigator for its competing HPV vaccine, Cervarix. Now the Chair of Family and Geriatric Medicine at University of Louisville, Harper has personally seen tens of thousands of women with abnormal Pap smears, women from all continents of the world having come to her referral clinic for her expertise, giving her a breadth of understanding few could match.
In giving parents advice, Offit needs to up his game, at a minimum acknowledging that his view runs counter to that of a preeminent expert in the field. But so does USA Today — good copy editors, if not good editors, should do a better job of protecting readers from potentially serious misinformation. USA Today might also consider revising Offit’s article.
Offit’s article needs another four band-aids, or demerits in our rating system, to correct the errors in his article.
As with all journalists we rate, Offit has a standing invitation to respond here.
Your comments are welcome, using the form below. You might also consider commenting on the USA Today site, via Twitter to @DrPaulOffit and/or @USATODAY.