Posts Tagged ‘health’

Toronto Star Fails in Vaccine Investigation

Photo Illustration (Photo Credit: Flickr/ El Alvi)

Photo Illustration (Photo Credit: Flickr/ El Alvi)

Two days after I published a post on this blog about the importance of using data to report on medicine, the Toronto Star published – what the paper called – an investigation into Gardasil, which is one of the vaccines used to prevent the human papillomavirus.

While the Star’s story included medical experts defending the vaccine, the paper relied on anecdotal reports to support a hypothesis that the drug has a “dark side” that includes undisclosed complications, including death.

As I wrote in my post on February 3, journalists have a responsibility to prevent people from being harmed by incorrect information. In this case, one can make a strong argument that the Star’s failure to adequately report its story may lead to future cancers and even deaths.

The human papillomavirus – better known as HPV – is a sexually transmitted infection responsible for a number of cancers and other complications, including genital warts. Most importantly, HPV is responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says on its website that almost all adults who are sexually active will be infected with at least one strain of HPV during their lives. Most infections will clear up on their own, but about one in 10 will persist.

There are two vaccines currently approved to protect against HPV in the U.S. Cervarix, which is manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, and Gardasil, which is manufactured by Merck. Gardasil is the only vaccine approved for use in males, who can also get HPV and suffer from its complications.

While the CDC says the vaccines are safe and effective, the agency reports some people experience side effects ranging from pain at the injection site, headache, nausea, dizziness and fainting.

The U.S. recommends vaccination for boys and girls from ages 11 through 12 years, and teens who were not previously vaccinated. Specifically, females can get the series of three shots through age 26 and males through age 21. Gay men, bisexual men and other men who have sex with men can also receive the vaccine through age 26 years.

If people reading the Star’s story are persuaded to not be vaccinated, some may go on to develop cancers that would have been prevented by the vaccine. Additionally, some of those cancers may ultimately cause people’s deaths.

While the Star – as of right now – did not retract its story, the paper’s publisher said the publication failed in its job. Additionally, the paper’s public editor Kathy English wrote a comprehensive report on the matter on Friday.

“It’s too bad there isn’t a vaccination to prevent journalistic misstep. I suspect we’d all line up for that shot about now. The fallout here has been devastating for the newsroom,” wrote English.

English places a lot of blame on the story’s presentation, such as the accompanying headline and pictures. While those elements didn’t help, the article itself would lead a reasonable reader to assume the vaccine may cause serious complications.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff told CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, that he suspects the Star’s story will lead some people to not be vaccinated, and ultimately develop cancers.

“And that’s really a horrible thing for the Toronto Star to have done,” he told the CBC.

The Star already took some steps to reduce the harm its article caused, including admitting the paper failed in its responsibilities and adding several notes to the online publication. My hope is that the Star will report the story again, except with a much more critical eye.

 On a personal note: I think it’s important to say that I’m currently in the middle of receiving the HPV vaccine – as recommended by the CDC.

Andrew Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

Ebola in America

Ebola virus disease is a terrifying ailment. After transmission, symptoms start two to 21 days later. The often-deadly disease usually begins with a fever and progresses to more serious symptoms, such as internal and external bleeding. Even more terrifying, the disease is caused by a virus that’s invisible to the naked eye.

As a health writer, I watched since early this year as reports of the current Ebola virus disease outbreak trickle out of West Africa. Fear and anxiety spread among Americans as it became clear that the disease would eventually reach the U.S.

While the Code of Ethics is clear that ethical journalism ensures the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough, Americans were on the receiving end of journalism during the past couple months that often failed to meet those standards.

The truth is that a person can’t develop Ebola virus disease unless they come in direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, such as blood, vomit or semen. Vox offers information on Ebola virus disease here:

While many people wave off irresponsible journalism as the result of the digital world hungry for constant content, reports that lead to more questions than answers may also lead to harm.

First, there are the people with Ebola virus disease. There is a gray area whenever journalists deal with people suffering from an illness – especially a contagious disease. By releasing those patients’ names, will it affect their livelihood? Will this information put them at risk in some way? How will their family be affected by the news coverage? Simply put: do the benefits of releasing this information outweigh the harm it may cause?

Second, there is the general U.S. public, who – for the most part – only know of Ebola virus disease through the stories and images they received in years past from Africa. Journalists have the responsibility to act and provide accurate answers through thorough reporting. It’s not the job of journalists to drum up unwarranted fear or concern.

Unlike many countries in Africa, the U.S. is in a much better position to control any cases of the Ebola virus disease. While there are challenges and errors, the journalists reporting on Ebola should not consider the situations comparable.

The most recent poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found about a third of adults in the U.S. are at least “somewhat worried” that someone in their family will be exposed to the Ebola virus.

In addition to the wear and tear of general anxiety, the potential harm of unchecked rumors and fear among the general public can be seen in U.S. history books. Fear and uncertainty over the transmission of HIV in 1987 led to a ban on people infected with the virus, which causes AIDS, from entering the U.S. The ban stayed on the books until 2009, a year after then-President George W. Bush began the repeal process.

Fortunately, health officials, health experts, journalists and the general U.S. population are in a better position than they were during the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Ebola virus disease is not new. The first outbreak occurred in 1976, according to the World Health Organization. People know how the virus spreads and how to give people infected with it the best chance at survival.

As with any topic, journalists with questions about Ebola virus disease or possible cases in communities should do what they always do – ask questions and provide accurate information.

For more information, I encourage reporters to always refer to the Code of Ethics. Additionally, the statement of principles from the Association of Health Care Journalists provides guidance to people covering health care.


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