Yet another zombie antivaccine meme rises from the grave to join its fellows
Oh, no, not again!
It was just two days ago that I decided to take on a zombie antivaccine meme that just keeps rising from the dead over and over and over again. I’m referring to the claim that Andrew Wakefield has been exonerated by legal rulings compensating children for alleged MMR-induced vaccine injury. As I pointed out, this particular claim is a steaming, stinking turd with no science (or even facts) behind it. As I further explained, even if a court rules that vaccines cause autism, that is not scientific evidence that vaccines do, in fact, cause autism. The courts screw up all the time on science, and court rulings cannot be considered a reliable indication of science. The example I like to use is the ruling against Dow Corning back in the 1990s that silicone breast implants were responsible for all sorts of autoimmune diseases, when epidemiological studies showed that they did not. I had hoped to rest after that and have fun either discussing or deconstructing scientific studies (whether I deconstruct them or discuss them depends upon their quality), leaving any further public service demolitions of zombie antivaccine memes for another time.
Then I happened to see Mike Adam’s wretched hive of scum and quackery yesterday, NaturalNews.com, and right there on the main page was a post entitled Lead Gardasil developer clears conscience, admits vaccine is useless and deadly, and I knew my work wasn’t done. I had seen the article that “inspired” this particular antivaccine zombie meme several times before leading up to this. Like the previous one, it had appeared on Facebook multiple times. I hadn’t had to unfriend anyone because of it, but I had seen it. It had appeared an several antivaccine and “alternative health websites” basically verbatim (for instance, here, here, and here). The article had been starting to annoy me almost as much as the “Wakefield wuz right ’cause the courts said so” meme. And now it’s showing up on one of the two biggest, baddest quack websites on the entire Internet, NaturalNews.com. It’s like waving a cape in front of a bull or sending up the Bat Signal to summon Batman.
So what are the basic claims? Well, this particular meme follows a pattern in which Diane Harper, one of the investigators on the clinical studies for Gardasil has had some sort of attack of conscience and now wants to “come clean” about the vaccine:
Dr. Diane Harper was the lead researcher in the development of the human papilloma virus vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix. She is the latest to come forward and question the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines. She made the surprising announcement at the 4th International Public Conference on Vaccination, which took place in Reston, Virginia on Oct. 2nd through 4th, 2009. Her speech was supposed to promote the Gardasil and Cervarix vaccines, but she instead turned on her corporate bosses in a very public way. When questioned about the presentation, audience members remarked that they came away feeling that the vaccines should not be used.
What’s not mentioned is that this particular article is that the 4th International Public Conference on Vaccination was a conference held by one of the oldest and most established antivaccine groups, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). That’s the group founded by Barbara Loe Fisher, the grande dame of the antivaccine movement, the woman who was antivaccine before it was fashionable to be antivaccine. Without Barbara Loe Fisher, there might not be J.B. Handley, Mark Blaxill, Dan Olmsted, Jenny McCarthy, or even Jake Crosby. I do not mean that as a complement. The NVIC is known for deceptive antivaccine advertising campaigns (is there any other kind?), a “memorial” web page for “victims” of vaccines called (appropriately enough) the International Memorial for Vaccine Victims, and, of course, holding antivaccine conferences like the one at which Diane Harper appeared. It was a conference that was chock full of antivaccine speakers and a whole lot of “autism biomed” quackery, up to and including at least two talks on homeopathy to treat autism. It doesn’t get quackier than that.
And it was four years ago, which reminds me that this story, with similar or the same wording, has popped up periodically ever since 2009. Indeed, a chiropractor cited the very same article in 2011 in the comments of this post, quoting an article with exactly the wording of the article being promoted by NaturalNews.com.
Knowing what the conference was about (hint: it wasn’t science) also allows me to put the lie to the claim in these stories that Harper was there to “promote Gardasil.” If that’s what she was there for, then she was really, really in the wrong place. I can’t imagine a much worse place for a pro-Gardasil researcher to appear. Maybe at a meeting of SaneVax members or members of the (Not-So) Thinking Moms’ Revolution. Of course, Harper wouldn’t be the first researcher to have unwittingly accepted a speaking invitation to a questionable or even crank conference without realizing what they were agreeing to. For instance, Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Group accepted an invitation to the same conference until he realized that he would be receiving an award along with Andrew Wakefield who would be getting the NVIC’s Humanitarian Award. I must admit that, even four years later, I can’t figure out why Harper agreed to speak at this conference and have parts of her talk appear in the antivaccine propaganda movie The Greater Good.
Around the same time, as Ethan Huff of NaturalNews.com reports, Harper was quoted as saying things that sound anti-Gardasil. One that he cites comes from CBS News. What is not mentioned is that this article is by Sharyl Attkisson, an execrably credulous reporter for CBS who is antivaccine to the core and an admirer of Andrew Wakefield. She’s even been caught exchanging information with bloggers for the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism. But what did Harper actually say? In the article, she is portrayed as claiming that the vaccine is as deadly as cervical cancer. What she actually said was somewhat more nuanced than that, and it sounds to me as though she was selectively quoted. For one thing, a lot of what she said was quoted as being about Cervarix, which is the HPV vaccine sold in Europe, as compared to Gardasil, which is the HPV vaccine sold in the United States by Merck. Here’s what she’s quoted as saying in the article floating around the Internet:
Dr. Harper explained in her presentation that the cervical cancer risk in the U.S. is already extremely low, and that vaccinations are unlikely to have any effect upon the rate of cervical cancer in the United States. In fact, 70% of all H.P.V. infections resolve themselves without treatment in a year, and the number rises to well over 90% in two years. Harper also mentioned the safety angle. All trials of the vaccines were done on children aged 15 and above, despite them currently being marketed for 9-year-olds.
All of which is true but irrelevant. An infection doesn’t have to result in cervical cancer 100% of the time to make it worth vaccinating against. Even if the infection results in cancer only 1% of the time or less it could well be worth vaccinating against if the vaccine is safe, and, contrary to the claims by antivaccinationists, the HPV vaccine is very, very safe indeed, with the most serious adverse reactions generally being syncope and skin reactions. The deaths and thousands of adverse reactions reported to the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database have never been causally linked to the HPV vaccine. VAERS, as I’ve pointed out many times, engages in minimal examination of individual reports, and anyone can submit them. It can also be (and has been) used for “dumpster diving” to try to find correlations that don’t hold up to scrutiny. Lawyers have used vaccine litigation to distort the VAERS database. That’s why VAERS is pretty useless for determining causality from correlation. It wasn’t designed for that. It was designed as an early warning system with high sensitivity but very low specificity to pick up early warning signs of potential adverse events.
As for the article from 2009 by Sharyl Attkisson, the key claim cited by the zombie meme article and repeated by Huff at NaturalNews.com is this:
“The rate of serious adverse events (from Gardasil) is on par with the death rate of cervical cancer,” admitted Dr. Harper at that time, refuting a pro-Gardasil piece published by Slate. “Gardasil has been associated with at least as many serious adverse events as there are deaths from cervical cancer developing each year.”
The interesting thing about this quote is that in an interview with Ben Goldacre Harper denied saying that the HPV vaccine is deadlier than cancer:
So I contacted Professor Harper. For avoidance of doubt, so that there can be no question of me misrepresenting her views, unlike the Express, I will explain Professor Harper’s position on this issue in her own words. They are unambiguous.
“I did not say that Cervarix was as deadly as cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix could be riskier or more deadly than cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix was controversial, I stated that Cervarix is not a ‘controversial drug’. I did not ‘hit out’ – I was contacted by the press for facts. And this was not an exclusive interview.”
Professor Harper did not “develop Cervarix”, as the Sunday Express said, but she did work on some important trials of Gardasil, and also Cervarix. “Gardasil is not a ‘sister vaccine’ as the Express said, it is a different compound. I do not know of the side effects of Cervarix as it is not available in the US.” Furthermore she did not say that Cervarix was being over marketed. “I did say that Merck was egregiously overmarketing Gardasil in the US- but Gardasil and Cervarix are not the same vaccines.”
It is interesting how this UK article sounds so much like the Attkisson hit piece against Gardasil, down to the same sort of rhetoric. Which is how I understood her misgivings about Gardasil as being: Not that Gardasil is ineffective, not that it’s dangerous, but that its benefits might be oversold, which is not an unreasonable concern. These accounts also almost uniformly list Harper as the “lead researcher” on Gardasil. I’ve described why Harper was in reality not what that title is clearly meant to imply, namely the main researcher who developed Gardasil, but I think Skeptical Raptor did an even better job than I did. Basically, Harper was principal investigator for some of the clinical trials for Gardasil and helped design them. She did not design the vaccine. She had much less to do with the development of Cervarix, and she does appear to be more enthusiastic for Cervarix than for Gardasil because Cervarix has crossreactivity with more cancer-causing HPV types. In any case, in 2011, Harper was quoted as saying:
I remain a vaccine supporter; and am grateful that GSK and merck have developed the vaccines.
Her other concerns were that unless Gardasil provides more than 15 years worth of protection against HPV it would only shift the age of diagnosis later and might not provide lifelong protection. In any case, my feeling is that Harper’s views have evolved. She became disillusioned with Gardasil but looks upon next generation HPV vaccines as potentially much more promising. She also feared that advertising was leading women to believe that if they are vaccinated with Gardasil they no longer require Pap smears. Finally, in the US, where Pap smear screening keeps the incidence of invasive cervical cancer low, she was concerned that the vaccine might provide marginal benefit in women who are very punctilious about their screening, although she never disputed that it would still protect against the reproductive consequences of HPV infection. It should be pointed out that her calculations to back up this assertion are not universally accepted and have been criticized.
The truly amusing thing about the NaturalNews.com article is the paranoia behind it. As quoted above, in her interview four years ago with Ben Goldacre Harper disavowed the way her statements about Gardasil and HPV vaccines were being characterized by the press and antivaccine groups. Of course, in a way she had no one to blame but herself. She still hasn’t apologized for speaking at an a wretched hive of scum and quackery of an antivaccine
meeting quackfest, where her nuanced views on HPV vaccination were guaranteed to be misinterpreted and misrepresented as the “lead investigator” for Gardasil development having decided that HPV vaccination doesn’t work and is dangerous. She was either hopelessly naive or high on her newfound fame that she was enjoying four years ago, and I really wish Ben Goldacre had asked her about her appearance speaking at the NVIC. In any case, perhaps realizing her mistake, she spoke to Goldacre. That, of course, was viewed as the only thing it could be viewed as by antivaccine loons, evidence that big pharma must have gotten to her or she is mentally ill:
But not long after clearing her conscience on this important issue so that she could sleep at night, Dr. Harper basically retracted all of her statements, claiming that media reports citing them were made up. What? The vaccine industry or some other power apparently got to Dr. Harper and convinced her to change her story — either that or she is schizophrenic.
Implying that someone you disagree with must have changed her mind because she was paid or threatened or because she is mentally ill. Stay classy, Ethan. Stay classy. It’s nice to see that the people who work for Mike Adams are just as classy as he is. To take a trip down memory lane, I can’t help but point out that in October 2009, Adams himself first made this charge:
Now, I can’t prove that Merck intimidated Dr. Harper into changing her story, but based on public court documents, this is a type of behavior in which Merck has apparently engaged. And I can’t prove that Dr. Harper changed her story, but I wouldn’t blame her if she did, especially if she was being threatened with losing her career.
Or maybe Dr. Harper finally realized that some of her previous statements, such as this one speculating about a link between Gardasil vaccination and amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease) were irresponsible. Maybe she learned her lesson about being too speculative with the press. Also, it’s clear from her more recent writings that she is definitely supportive of Cervarix, less so of Gardasil. Whatever her reasons, Adams’ rant is nothing more than a reverse version of the pharma shill gambit in which he claims that pharma intimidation is causing a noted clinical investigator to cower in fear, shut up, and toe the line. Maybe she realized she screwed up big time when she appeared at the NVIC conference. Certainly I’m unaware of her having appeared at any other antivaccine quackfests since 2009. Certainly she never appeared at AutismOne, the premier antivaccine quackfest.
On the other hand, I fear that we skeptics are a bit too quick to dismiss Harper’s prior statements as having been misquotes when it is clear that she did, at least for a while, either wittingly or unwittingly give aid and comfort to the antivaccine movement through inflammatory statements about “experimentation” giving Gardasil to 12-year-olds and her speculation that Gardasil might be linked to ALS even though there was no good evidence to support that link. That she’s straightened up and flown right since late 2009 is a good thing, but her irresponsible, borderline antivaccine statements in multiple media outlets before that were too numerous to ignore. It’s highly unlikely that her statements were all misquotes or taken out of context, and they live on, thanks to websites like that of Mike Adams. It’s good that Harper has stopped making them and hasn’t appeared at any further antivaccine quackfests like the NVIC conference since 2009, but we shouldn’t forget her previous statements. Even though she’s disavowed them for the most part, they keep coming back to haunt us as zombie memes that never die just like this one.
I fully expect that this particular meme will continue for the rest of my life, with the exact same article showing up periodically, being Tweeted all over the Internet, and spread all over Facebook, even though the basic article dates back to 2009. Zombie antivaccine Internet memes never die. They always rise again.