A vaccine research controversy is now brewing over a study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports. The publication has caused two groups of scientists to write letters to the journal, asking it to retract the paper they claim is without scientific merit and could be damaging to the practice of vaccination.
“[The paper] lacks a clear methodology, adequate controls to control for bias, descriptions of results consistent with the data presented, or enough information for this study to be reproduced,” reads one letter from University of Melbourne virologist David Hawkes and two of his colleagues. The other, signed by 20 members of the HPV Prevention and Control Board at the University of Antwerp in Belgium states, “This experimental setup in no way mimics the immunization with HPV vaccines but is gross over dosage and manipulation of membrane permeability.”
The stakes are high for any academic journal, where reputations are founded primarily on the quality of their published research. And although criticism of research methods is nothing new, the topic of this particular study, vaccination, is definitely of the hot-button variety.
The study was led by members of the Tokyo Medical University in Japan and involved giving to mice high doses of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine (reportedly, 1,000 times the amount administered through human immunization) in combination with pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. The researchers concluded that such doses produced mobility impairments and neurological damage in the mice, a result which the study’s authors say links HPV vaccination to a set of physiological and psychological symptoms ranging from pain and environmental sensitivity to cognitive dysfunction, fatigue and depression.
Although firmly debunked by repeated large-scale studies, claims that vaccination is associated with widespread health issues – including a suggested link with autism – continue to be raised by various so-called “anti-vaccinators.” On their own, such claims have be dismissed through appeal to the evidence, but their power to nonetheless affect public opinion has been clearly documented.
In the United States, measles outbreaks over the past few years have been blamed on low vaccination rates said to be the fallout of skeptical views held by parents on the safety of the vaccination process. And in Japan, when media reports began to emerge in 2013 about alleged side effects from the HPV vaccine, the government suspended its recommendation for the vaccine, causing HPV vaccination rates across the country to drop from a previous high of 70 per cent to less than one per cent today.
And in Canada, where vaccination rates continue to sag below what has been deemed necessary for the development of herd immunity, a 2013 survey found that while 95 per cent of Canadian parents agreed that vaccinations are safe, 37 per cent of them also agreed with the (false) statement that vaccines can cause the very disease that they are meant to prevent. Researchers say that these misleading assumptions create a context dubbed “vaccine hesitancy,” exemplified by the 70 per cent of parents in the survey who also expressed concerns about potential side effects of vaccination.
Critics of the recently published study say that it is clearly aimed at fanning the flames of vaccine skepticism and that the journal Scientific Reports is to blame for enabling the process, one which could produce “devastating” health consequences. In a recent blog post, David Gorski, surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, Michigan, criticized the journal and its parent company, Nature Publishing Group, for allowing the publication of the paper, one which he argues is invalid on many fronts, calling it a “waste of precious animals,” according to a report in Science.
Gorski further contends that the connection between Scientific Reports and the instantly recognizable and reputable journal Nature (both are under the Nature Publishing Group mantle) only deepens the problem. “Publishing crap like this on Scientific Reports risks both that reputation, but, worse, can easily allow cranks and quacks to falsely but convincingly claim that Nature published putridly awful research like this supporting their ideas,” writes Gorski.
For its part, a spokesperson for Scientific Reports has stated on the topic, “We investigate every concern that is raised with us carefully and will take action where appropriate.”