Observations Medicine and the Media

Cervarix: definitely not the new MMR

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b4124 (Published 07 October 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b4124
  1. Rebecca Coombes, associate editor, BMJ
  1. rcoombes{at}bmjgroup.com

    The UK press may have learnt lessons from the MMR furore, though this hasn’t stopped some newspapers from printing sensationalist stories about the HPV vaccines

    We have known for more than a week that the Cervarix vaccine did not kill 14 year old Natalie Morton (BMJ 2009;339:b4032, doi:10.1136/bmj.b4032). But the sad death of the Coventry schoolgirl shortly after receiving the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine on 28 September presented a difficult test to the press in the United Kingdom.

    The story had some of the hallmarks of the furore over the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine—a health scare also concerning a vaccine with a previously excellent safety record. Journalists had their fingers burnt over MMR, when they gave credence to the maverick doctor Andrew Wakefield and his later retracted evidence that the MMR vaccine might trigger autism. Perhaps wary of charges of gullibility, initial reports of Natalie Morton’s death were restrained. “Don’t panic” ran the Daily Mirror headline. Science friendly media agencies, such as the Science Media Centre, successfully fielded questions from the press and provided expert quotations.

    The story moved quickly: on 1 October preliminary reports showed that Natalie had a large malignant tumour in her chest, which had caused her death.

    But some news desks were unable to shake the scent of a different story. On 4 October, in headline letters several inches high, the Sunday Express declared the …

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