As was made incredibly clear by the disgraceful Wakefield saga back in the late 1990s, it doesn’t take much more than a rabid media cycle and a questionable paper to trigger global changes in how the public perceive their health and threats to it. That’s why, when a late-2016 paper linked the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine to neurological damage in mice, controversy immediately ensued.
Back when this paper was originally published in November of that year, it was savaged by other experts in the field, who complained that the study was swamped with methodological problems and overzealous conclusions. Fortunately, after an overly long period of time, the original paper has now officially been retracted by the journal it was published in, Scientific Reports.
HPV causes cervical cancer, which according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is the fourth most common cancer in women. Back in 2012, more than a quarter of a million women died from the disease.
Young adolescent girls are the primary targets for inoculation against the virus. Reams of clinical data have shown all three variants of the vaccine to be both life-saving and safe. Plenty of comprehensive studies and reviews on the HPV vaccine do not show that it brings with it any such neurological, cardiovascular, or autoimmune risks.
The publication of the now-retracted paper back in 2016 caused, rather understandably, quite the shock. The team tested an unrealistically high dose of it on mice, one proportionally 1,000 times greater than that given to people. Along with a toxin that breaks down the blood-brain barrier, the combination appeared to show the mice experiencing brain damage and hampered mobility.
This month's retraction notes that the experimental approach “does not support the objectives of the study” and that the co-administration of a toxin along with a very high vaccination dose “is not an appropriate approach to determine neurological damage from HPV vaccine alone.”
The study, led by Toshihiro Nakajima of Tokyo Medical University, was defended by its authors at the time, despite the storm of scientific criticism. Curiously, the retraction notice explains that “the Authors do not agree with the retraction,” although it’s not clear why they're still holding out.
As pointed out by ScienceMag, at the time, unfounded concern in Japan over the vaccine was already rife. Before the publication of the paper, video footage of young girls showing neurological problems was being linked to the vaccine, and outlets there began reporting on alleged side-effects. In fact, anti-vaxxer campaigner efforts managed to successfully convince the government in 2013 to stop recommending it altogether.
HPV vaccination rates in Japan have tended to be low, but in the city of Sapporo – where the vaccine was being given out for free since 2011 – inoculation rates dropped from 70 percent to below 1 percent in just a couple of years. The 2016 paper seemed to hand anti-vaxxers a powerful weapon in their campaign.
Although it’s welcome to finally have this paper retracted, it’s uncertain as to whether it will make a difference to groups that believe the HPV vaccines are dangerous. Retractions aren’t anywhere near as reported on as the original articles or papers. Even if they are, studies show that people spread and rely on misinformation even after it’s been officially rejected.
In many cases, the damage takes a long, long time to undo, and health science is particularly vulnerable in this regard. Whether it’s an article or a study, then, precision and communication are vital; it’s extremely difficult to put the bullet back in the chamber after the gun has been fired.