Accuracy of the Media Reports
While the initial media response was somewhat restrained, many inaccuracies were reported.
Headline in the London Evening Standard:
Plea for calm after cancer vaccine death
“Natalie Morton, 14, died yesterday after suffering a ‘rare but extreme’ reaction to the jab.”
The London Evening Standard was not alone in erroneously reporting that the student had died from a "rare but extreme" reaction to the jab.
At that point the cause of death was unknown and it was impossible to say if the vaccine was linked to the death.
Headline in The Express:
Girl, 14, Dies after taking cervical cancer vaccine
“It is believed to be the first fatality linked to the vaccination programme.”
Some of confusion among the press came directly from misinformation spread by the school – that the schoolgirl suffered a “rare but extreme reaction” to the vaccine. While this was quickly corrected on the school’s website, it caused a lot of confusion among the press and parents.
In some instances, journalists trying to be helpful created a false assumption that there was a risk of death. For example, some newspapers argued that “this is only 1 death in 1 000 000 doses”, as compared to 400 lives saved by those same doses.
The balance is hugely in favour of the immunization programme.
However, it was wrong to say “this is only 1 death in a 1 000 000 doses.”
The true figure is 0 deaths in 1 000 000 doses.
The death was not caused by the vaccine.
These stories were creating a false assumption that this risk was true. A girl reading these stories could come away thinking her risk of death after vaccination was one in a million!
Some stories created the impression that the vaccination programme was in chaos, and by implication that the government had lost control of the situation.
The Times’ cover story on September 29, 2009 (Tuesday, Day 2):
Cancer vaccine programme in disarray
“The national vaccination programme to protect against cervical cancer was today in disarray after a 14-year-old girl died shortly after receiving the Cervarix jab...”
“...Health officials in the Midlands suspended the campaign while parents elsewhere were left confused as schools and councils took unilateral action in defiance of government guidelines.”
There was no evidence that the programme was in chaos. In Coventry, the local NHS did not suspend its HPV programme, but rescheduled clinics for Tuesday and Wednesday to give staff the chance to be fully briefed to answer public enquiries. In some areas vaccination sessions were temporarily halted because their vaccine supply was from the batch that was quarantined.
Some press stories suggested that because the government chose the cheaper vaccine, Cervarix, it was less safe.
Two days after the girl’s death, the Daily Mail printed:
“Why were we not told that a deluxe version was available?”
Later that week, the same story continued...
“The tragedy of this death highlights the scandal that this government went for [the] cheapest option.”
In response, The Independent on Sunday headline ran:
“Cheaper brand of vaccine is a false economy.”
The most vivid example of inaccurate reporting was published in the weekly SUNDAY EXPRESS on October 4th – eight days after the student’s death and long after the vaccine was cleared from playing a role in the death.
Cervical drug expert hits out as new doubts raised over death of teenager.
The author claimed an exclusive interview with Dr. Diane Harper, a scientist who worked on the Cervarix and Gardasil clinical trials.
The SUNDAY EXPRESS claimed...
“The cervical cancer vaccine may be riskier and more deadly than the cancer it is designed to prevent, a leading expert who developed the drug has warned.”
- Harper did not say that Cervarix was as deadly as cervical cancer or that Cervarix could be riskier or more deadly than cervical cancer.
- Harper did not develop the drug. She was involved in the Cervarix and Gardasil clinical trials.
The SUNDAY EXPRESS also claimed...
“Dr. Diane Harper, who was involved in the clinical trials of the controversial drug Cervarix, said the jab was being ‘over-marketed’ and parents should be properly warned about the potential side effects.”
- Harper did not say that Cervarix was controversial. In contrast, she told the press that Cervarix is not a ‘controversial drug’.
- Harper said that she does not know the side effects of Cervarix as it is not available in the United States. Furthermore she did not say that Cervarix was being over-marketed. She said that Merck was egregiously over-marketing Gardasil in the US – but Gardasil and Cervarix are not the same vaccines.
While anti-vaccination campaigners were not given much public coverage – a medical doctor criticized universal vaccination programmes, claiming...
“…that people, especially parents, feel bullied or patronized if they dare to challenge the official drive to vaccinate against every possible risk of disease.”
“The tragic irony for Natalie was that the injection may have triggered a reaction far more lethal than any future, distant threat of a comparatively rare disease.”
“Colluding with the pharmaceutical giants, the Government has become far too cavalier about their use, promoting them as a risk-free solution to all sorts of medical conditions, no matter how low the incidence.”
Independent news media play a pivotal role shaping public perception of vaccination programmes. In this case, the media was most interested in the story when there were unanswered questions about the safety of the vaccine. These kinds of questions can give rise to rumours and false information.
It is important to get in front of the story to frame the questions in the media and provide accurate answers rather than be reactive because chasing and countering rumours and misinformation is difficult and often not entirely successful.
“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”– Mark Twain