How a major newspaper bungled a vaccine story, then smeared its critics
The Toronto Star, Canada’s highest-circulation daily newspaper, has built a reputation for excellent investigative reporting, including justly celebrated exposes of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.
But now that reputation is in tatters, due to an evidence-free “investigation” of the health risks of the vaccine Gardasil, which immunizes against the dangerous human papillomavirus. The Star’s Feb. 5 piece, ominously headlined “A wonder drug’s dark side,” exploited heart-wrenching family anecdotes of illness and death to undermine a vast library of scientific studies proving the vaccine to be safe.
Worse, the Star responded to an uproar over the article by scientific and medical experts by smearing and demeaning critics -- until the paper’s publisher finally acknowledged publicly that the story was wrong: “We failed in this case. We let down. And it was in the management of the story at the top,” he told a radio audience on Feb. 11. On Friday, the Star added a subheadline to the online version of the article, acknowledging the uproar and stating in part, “There is no scientific medical evidence of any ‘dark side’ of this vaccine.”
The entire affair unfolded over slightly more than a week, but its negative impact on the health of Canadians could persist for years. The Star’s credulous treatment of unverified stories claiming serious side effects from Gardasil resembles that of Katie Couric, who provided self-described Gardasil victims with an even larger platform on her daytime TV show in 2013. Couric soon issued a mea culpa. (We covered her misadventure here and here.)
The consequences of such scare reporting can be measured in real illness and death. A fraudulent, conclusively debunked study purporting to show a link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism continues to fuel resistance to the MMR vaccine. The harvest includes the current nationwide outbreak of measles that began with visits to and exposure of unvaccinated individuals at Disneyland at Christmastime. The caseload has reached at least 121 in 17 states, including 110 in California.
The Star’s initial Gardasil story is a classic example of poor reporting on scientific issues. It featured five cases in which adolescent girls experienced neurological or allergic conditions within a few weeks after receiving a shot. One died. None of these episodes could be directly tied to the injections, except temporally.
That’s not remotely enough to establish that the conditions had anything to do with the vaccine, but the Star’s reporters ruthlessly played up what more likely than not are coincidences:
“Annabelle ‘came out of [her] room disoriented, she could hardly walk, she couldn’t speak. She was mumbling.’... Morin took her daughter to the hospital, where a brain scan turned up nothing. ... The episode occurred 16 days after her first Gardasil shot. Annabelle got her second shot on Nov. 24. After about the same span of time, 15 days later, she died.”
The article implied that hundreds of thousands of Canadian families had been systematically misled about Gardasil’s supposed dangers by doctors, the pharmaceutical industry and Canadian public health officials. Interspersed among its emotion-laden anecdotes were acknowledgments that years of scientific studies have shown no linkage between Gardasil and such symptoms. These included a study financed by the governments of Sweden and Denmark of 998,000 Swedish and Danish girls ages 10-17, of whom 297,000 had received at least one dose of the vaccine. The study, which found “no consistent evidence for a plausible association” between the vaccine and serious disorders, matched results from other studies involving hundreds of thousands of subjects.
But as the Star’s publisher later conceded, the “you-are-there” depiction of families struggling with illness and death hopelessly overwhelmed its acknowledgments of Gardasil’s established safety and efficacy.
The article’s presentation of data was misleading at best. It stated that “at least 60 girls and women in Canada” had experienced convulsions or disabling pain after taking Gardasil since 2008, but wasn’t clear about its source for that figure or what conditions it covered. It didn’t explain that even if every case was a serious one tied directly to the shots, it would represent 0.0075% of the estimated 700,000 vaccine doses distributed in Ontario alone.
Nor did it adequately explain that the vaccine is a potent preventative against HPV, which it acknowledged “causes 70 per cent of cervical cancer cases. ... Roughly 400 Canadian women die of cervical cancer each year.” Gardasil is “indeed a wonder drug,” as the Walrus, a Canadian magazine reported in its thorough deconstruction of the Star’s reporting.
Criticism of the article erupted immediately. Among the first published reactions was a blog post by Jen Gunter, a Canada-trained OB/GYN at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, which listed some of the pertinent research on the vaccine’s safety on its way to labeling the Star piece, accurately, as “tabloid journalism at best.”
Gunter was dismissed by Star columnist Heather Mallick as “a rural doctor” (cosmopolitan Toronto evidently doesn’t think much of San Francisco), who defended the original piece as being “about information, and access to it ... about parents and girls not always being told what they need to know.”
This reflected the Star’s institutional defense of the article -- that it didn’t really portray the vaccine as unsafe, but was just providing information. This message often was delivered in the crudest, crassest terms by Star Editor Michael Cooke, who implied that one critic, Julia Belluz of vox.com, was a shill for Gardasil: “Stop gargling our bathwater and take the energy to run yourself your own, fresh tub,” he told her, according to her story. To another critic he replied via Twitter: “Try not to be an idiot.”
But the scientific pushback soon became too powerful to dismiss. Six days after the original story, the Star published a letter signed by two prominent Canadian law and immunology experts and endorsed by 63 other specialists.
The story’s “litany of horror stories and its innuendo give the incorrect impression that the vaccine caused the harm,” they wrote. “Very unfortunately, this article may well lead readers to doubt both the scientific evidence and the recommendations of the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, and the Canadian Cancer Society about vaccination.” The experts reminded the Star of the fundamental reality that “correlation is not causation” -- that just because a health syndrome followed a vaccination doesn’t show that the first was caused by the second.
Finally, Star Publisher John Cruikshank went on a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. radio program to fess up. He acknowledged that the headline was wrong, the story’s front-page play was inappropriate, and its promotion of unvalidated anecdotes distorted the established science.
The Star’s original story remains available on its website, though the headline now reads, “Families seek more transparency on HPV vaccine.” It now features a subheadline stating: “This article has come under global criticism by the medical and public health communities for not making clear the scientific evidence of the safety of the HPV vaccine Gardasil. There is no scientific medical evidence of any ‘dark side’ of this vaccine.”
But has the damage already been done? The article should stay online, as a warning to readers -- not of the purported dangers of a life-saving vaccine, but of the real perils of shoddy science reporting.