When I saw the first BBC news report of the death of Natalie Portman, the young girl who died immediately following vaccination with Cervarix, the anti-papillomavirus vaccine, what really jarred, apart from the tragedy of it, was this: The reporter talked about the ‘vaccine that protects against cervical cancer. Wherever this topic comes up in the media it is always referred to as the ‘cervical cancer vaccine’. And that is plain wrong.
This vaccine does NOT protect against cervical cancer. It offers protection against HPV, (human papillomavirus) infection. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that is responsible for genital warts, an unpleasant but not fatal condition, which mostly clears up on its own. A few strains, however, can cause dysplasia, pre-cancerous cells in the cervix, which if untreated are a high risk factor for cervical cancer. It is against these strains that the vaccine has been developed. A vaccine against a risk factor for cervical cancer is really not the same thing as a vaccine against cervical cancer. Yet wherever it is reported this distinction is not made.
Why does it matter? After all, the end result is the same. It is easier to say just that, rather than go into some version of the above paragraph whenever the subject comes up. But it matters a lot. First of all, it is factually untrue and in science and medicine it is really important to be accurate. I shouldn’t have to explain why. Second, it gives a distorted idea of what this vaccine actually does, and parents who have to make a decision about whether it is right for their daughters can’t really make an informed choice.
I don’t know if this vaccine should be taken or not, whether it is safe or does what it’s supposed to do but what I do see is that there is a lot of hype surrounding it and that in the eyes of the media and, consequently in the mind of the general public, this is a vaccine against cervical cancer. What is omitted from this sloppy description is that there are other causes of this cancer against which this vaccine does not offer protection. This is kind of important to know.
Drug companies are not in business to save suffering humanity. They are in business to make money and will therefore present their products in the most favourable light possible, exaggerating benefits and playing down risks. And mainstream journalists who are not medically or scientifically trained and who most likely get their information from press releases issued by the self-same companies have no way of evaluating its accuracy. How often have we read about the latest miracle drug that will cure all ills forevermore. And how often does it turn out that the drug really wasn’t all that great and that in some cases, as with HRT, was harmful. The same thing could well happen with this ‘cancer’ vaccine.
The death of Natalie Portman is very sad but I am in some way relieved to learn that it was not the vaccine that killed her. The anguish of parents losing a child is dreadful enough but how much worse it would be if the death was caused not by a serious condition about which nothing could be done but because distorted information about a medical treatment led her parents to make a poor choice.
George Orwell wrote in his brilliant essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’:
“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Sloppy language is dangerous. It can trash a reputation, break a heart or end a life. We cannot take what we hear and read at face value. We need to look deeper, ask questions until we know and understand everything we can before making important decisions. And when the media doesn’t give us accurate and complete information we need to call them on it.