The Globe and Mail’s health news reporter, Kelly Grant, referred to lots of experts in “Nova Scotia to include boys in HPV vaccination schedule,” her April 10 story on the merits of vaccinating boys as well as girls against the human papillomavirus.
Grant referred to “oncologists and major health organizations – including the Canadian Cancer Society and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.” She quoted Eduardo Franco, chair of the department of oncology at McGill University in Montreal, and David Jensen, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Grant even quoted at length a retired politician, a cancer victim who stated: “If I’d had the vaccine, I wouldn’t have had the cancer.”
While Grant’s article did raise doubts about the vaccine’s cost-effectiveness for boys, none of the people she cited raised any doubts about the safety of the vaccine, as if the vaccine’s safety was beyond doubt, and no credible expert existed who thought otherwise.
If Grant wasn’t in PR-mode in writing about the HPV vaccine for boys, she might have tried calling up one of this vaccine’s many critics, such as Dr. Diane Harper, Chair of Family and Geriatric Medicine at University of Louisville, who happens to be one of the world’s few recognized experts in the HPV field. Among her credentials: she was the principal investigator both for Merck, the pharmaceutical company that developed the Gardasil HPV vaccine, and for GlaxoSmithKline, which developed the competing HPV vaccine, Cervarix. Also among her credentials: Dr. Harper has specifically studied the merits of giving boys the HPV vaccine.
In interviewing Dr. Harper, Grant would have learned that there’s scant scientific evidence for giving boys this vaccine. As Dr. Harper told Fox News’s Alisyn Camerota in a 2011 interview, “we don’t know enough about what happens with the vaccine. We know for sure that the antibody titers that provide protection and give the efficacy of the vaccine wane two to three years earlier than they do for girls. In the studies that we did with the Gardasil vaccine in boys, what we found is that 38%, or nearly two-fifths of boys, lost all detectable titers to HPV-18, which is one of the two cancer-causing types in the vaccine.” Not only does the vaccine not protect against most strains of HPV, it can wane in under five years.
Experts at McGill and University of British Columbia could also have provided Grant with a balanced perspective, and perhaps some colorful quotes. When the New York Times interviewed UK National Health Service’s cervical cancer specialist Dr. Angela Raffle about HPV some years back, she replied: “Oh, dear. If we give it to boys, then all pretense of scientific worth and cost analysis goes out the window.”
Unlike public relations officers, journalists are trained to report both sides of a story, not to unquestioningly present but one point of view. For failing to act as a journalist, Kelly Grant (@kellygrant1, firstname.lastname@example.org) and her employer, the Globe and Mail (@globeandmail), receive one Band-Aid.