Monthly Archives: March 2015

HPV vaccine – why the bad reputation?

HPV_blog_article

The HPV vaccine is an important advancement for women’s health. The vaccine prevents HPV infection that causes almost all cervical cancers, the second most common cancer in women worldwide.

Cancers derive from cells within our own body that have gone haywire. But did you know that some viral infections are responsible for these cell changes and can cause cancer? These events are unusual, but can lead to many different types of cancer, including cervical cancer, Burkitt’s lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma. The human papillomavirus (or HPV for short) is the best-studied and well-known example of virus associated with cancer. Canadian Cancer Society funded researchers, along with scientists worldwide, helped pinpoint HPV as the cause of almost all cervical cancers. This was an extremely important finding because cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women, worldwide. Thanks to this discovery, vaccines against HPV were created that can save lives. Unfortunately HPV vaccines have recently been facing unjustified controversy in the media. I would like to take some time to respond to these unfounded doubts and explain what HPV is and why HPV vaccination is good for our health.

HPV virus is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Around 75% of Canadians will catch the virus at least once during their life. While only a few of these infections will be life threatening, some will lead to the development of cancer. In Canada, this corresponds to 1,450 newly diagnosed cervical cancers and around 400 deaths amongst women every year. HPV can also cause cancer of the vagina, penis, anus and, throat (1, 3).

Since the HPV virus causes these cancers, they can be prevented by vaccination. Scientists, pharmaceutical industries and the medical field have been working on this idea for a long time. Today we have access to two commercialized vaccines that are scientifically proven to be safe and very efficient. In Canada, we mostly use the vaccine Gardasil, which has been approved in more than 130 countries and has already safely been used amongst millions of girls worldwide (2, 3). This vaccine also has the potential to prevent vaginal, penile, anal and throat cancers.

Unfortunately, you might have heard through the media that some girls became very sick after vaccination (2). Although tragic stories, there was no conclusive evidence directly linking the vaccine to the illnesses. If we consider millions of people, there is a certain chance that these tragic events will happen independently of the vaccination. Similarly, out of all the girls that have been vaccinated against HPV, some might have won an important scholarship. It doesn’t mean that the scholarship was caused by the vaccine (2). If one thing happens just after another, it doesn’t mean that the first one caused the second. This misleading conclusion often causes unjustified critiques and prejudice to our healthcare system.

Before arriving on the market in 2006, Gardasil was part of 2 huge clinical trials involving more than 10,000 women from around the world (1). Results clearly demonstrated that the vaccine was safe and effective. Since 2006, 170 million doses of Gardasil have been distributed worldwide and the only serious (and very rare) side effect that has been associated to the vaccine was allergy. The benefits of such a vaccine are so important that they outweigh the mild negative side effects.

HPV vaccine is a fantastic medical success and an important advancement in how we can prevent cancer. I believe this vaccine will provide women all over the world with better health outcomes and give us an important advantage against cancer.

This article was written by Catherine Brun. She completed her PhD in Zurich, Switzerland and currently works as a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Dr. Dan Durocher at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto studying DNA damage. To learn more about Catherine and her research check out our Members page.

References:

(1) FX Bosch, TR Broker, D Forman at al., Comprehensive control of human papillomavirus infections and related diseases, Vaccine, December 2013

(2) Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2015/02/11/science-shows-hpv-vaccine-has-no-dark-side.html

(3) The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC):
http://www.hpvinfo.ca/health-care-professionals/what-is-hpv/incidence-and-prevalence-of-hpv-in-canada/

Sifting For Quality: How to Read Scientific Information

How to Read Scientific InformationThese days a wealth of information is available at our fingertips. Any Google search on a topic is bound to return thousands, even millions of results. In an age of information excess, how do we choose what to focus on? How do we know what to believe? There’s a reason why most of us don’t believe the tired old headlines calling for Brad and Angelina’s divorce when we stand in the checkout line at the store: experience has taught us these sources are not reliable. On the internet, anyone can write about science and medicine regardless of their expertise or intentions. Therefore, as we do with tabloids, we should distinguish between the BBC and The National Enquirer of science news and blogs.

Most of us don’t have the time and knowledge to examine all scientific data on a particular subject. Instead we rely on journalists and bloggers to do it for us. These sources are great: they process complex information and summarize the important points for us to learn. However this can sometimes lead to problems, such as faulty information, generalizations about findings, or reporting out of context. They can also introduce their own biases and perspective to influence the interpretation of science. Therefore it is important to become a critical reader in daily life in order to sort the good from the bad information.

News reports about scientific findings can sometimes be exaggerated. How many times have we read that “Drug X will change the medical landscape!”, only to find out that it was carried out in mice, or only applied to a small number of patients? Often times, we never hear about it again! I find it disheartening whenever news reports generalize and take findings out of context, because I feel it will ultimately disappoint those hoping for a cure for cancer when the miracle “breakthroughs” fail to occur.

Here are a few questions you should ask yourself when reading about scientific studies:

(1) Is there an agenda behind the source?

What is the author’s goal? It could be to simply educate on a topic, or it could be to influence our opinion or to sell their story. For the latter, authors sometimes will appeal to our emotion through their language. Highly controversial topics such as vaccines or climate change will contain many such examples, where authors resort to more than just facts to try to change our minds.

(2) Is there a potential conflict of interest?

Is the article promoting use of a specific product or technique? If so, what are the funding sources? Are there any conflicts of interest? Recently, one of the top climate change deniers, Dr. Wei-Hock Soon, a Harvard educated scientist was found to have hidden the fact that he received millions in funding from the fossil fuel industry (1-3). In light of this new evidence, how credible do you think his published articles are?

(3) Is the author appealing to your emotions?

Finally, the use of absolute terms or passionate language should be a red flag to you when reading about science. For example, “This groundbreaking new study will revolutionize…” is not language used by scientists. Instead, they are generally more cautious about making big claims regarding their research and will often use words such as “suggest”, “may”, and “potentially” to describe the significance of their work.

Being an active reader means probing the text for more than just the information provided. A critical approach when reading about science will help us find potential weaknesses and help us distinguish true scientific facts based on evidence, from scientific claims that have little or no basis. Truly understanding scientific data can sometimes be very challenging. It is no wonder the media sometimes gets it wrong! Now that you know what kind of fallacies occur in science reporting, are you wondering how come scientists seem so sure of their results? Then stay tuned for part 2 of this blog, where I will explain the types of things researchers do to make sure their results are correct and reliable.

This article was written by Natalia Ruiz. Natalia obtained a Master of Science degree from the University of Toronto studying the most aggressive and metastatic forms of breast cancer. To find out more about Natalia and her research check out her bio on the Members page.

Sources:

  1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/02/23/the-favorite-scientist-of-climate-change-deniers-is-under-fire-for-taking-oil-money/
  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/us/ties-to-corporate-cash-for-climate-change-researcher-Wei-Hock-Soon.html
  1. http://futurist.buzz/climate-denier-fossil-fuel/