A Vaccine Against Cervical Cancer: You’ve read the headlines

Your daily newspaper may well have reported on the latest medical breakthrough – a vaccine that fights a virus that can cause cervical cancer.

Wonderful if true, of course, but we would have long since retired if we’d been given £5 for every medical breakthrough that happened. Most, of course, disappear without further comment. And we fear this vaccine is likely to follow suit.

The medical study, on which these stories were based, was poorly constructed, and the results are, at best, dubious.

The study team took 1,533 women, half of whom were given the vaccine; the rest had a placebo vaccine. Nobody in the vaccine group developed the virus, known as HPV-16, whereas 41 of those given the placebo did become infected.

On the face of it, then, good news. Unfortunately, the virus was detected by using the Pap smear, which shows up false-negative results (giving the all-clear when it shouldn’t) in up to 93 per cent of cases. This suggests that the vaccine group may well have included some who had, in fact, become infected.

It’s worth adding, because the New England Journal of Medicine thought it was also worth mentioning when they printed the research, that some of the researchers work for Merck, which happens to be developing the vaccine, and who paid for the research.

Source: New England Journal of Medicine, 2002; 347: 1645-51.

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Written by What Doctors Don't Tell You

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