When the story broke on Monday that a young British schoolgirl, Natalie Morton, had died after receiving the HPV vaccine for cervical cancer, I wondered why it had made the news. After all, she also died after eating her breakfast that morning, and presumably after attending a couple of lessons. Why did the news stories not provide this information, I wondered. Why did they only mention the vaccination – which after all, was just another event in the girl’s schedule that day. And why didn’t they mention any of the other British children who’d also died that day, in road accidents, for example?
The reason, I soon worked out, was that newsmen like to start controversies. Controversies, however unfounded, sell newspapers or help broadcasters sell advertising space. However, this still didn’t tell me why the BBC – a “public service broadcaster” which has no need to sell ads and which is supposed to be a responsible counterweight to the tabloids and the Murdoch TV channels – published the story on its website under the banner, “Schoolgirl dies after cancer jab.” As with the tabloid press, the tone of the article, and of the BBC’s report on the episode in the 10 o’clock news, strongly suggested, without any evidence, that Natalie Morton’s death was caused by the vaccine. Anyone who did not see the follow-up story, published today, would have reasonably thought that the HPV vaccine was dangerous and may well have decided it was unsafe for their daughters to be immunised. Given that the vaccine is expected to reduce cervical cancer cases by 70%, such a decision would have left thousands of girls at risk of contracting a frequently fatal disease.
Hopefully, the follow-up story, which reports that Ms Morton died of a massive tumour in her chest that affected her heart and lungs, and not because of the vaccine (nor because she ate breakfast or attended lessons that day, for that matter), will receive as much coverage as the initial report and the scare will abate, though I’m not holding my breath. You only have to look at the mountain of coverage received by the MMR scandal (where duff science linked the vaccine to autism) to see that vaccination is not a topic that attracts responsible journalism.
Sadly, it doesn’t attract responsible politics either.