A Montreal social scientist and the federal agency that awarded her almost $300,000 to study the HPV vaccine are facing criticism after the professor condemned the vaccine and called for a moratorium on its use.
Concordia University’s Genevieve Rail also said there is no proof that the human papillomavirus directly causes cervical cancer, though a German scientist was awarded the Nobel Prize five years ago for discovering the link.
Experts say Rail’s public attacks are seriously misinformed and risk undermining an important public-health program — and they question why the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) would fund her work.
The $270,000 that Rail — who has a doctorate in kinesiology — received is to examine HPV vaccination “discourses” and their effect on teenagers, using in part interviews and drawings.
“This is akin to funding research that purports to show tobacco smoking does not cause lung cancer,” charged Eduardo Franco, head of cancer epidemiology at McGill University. “And that tobacco cessation, rather than helping reduce risk, is actually causing harm … CIHR would not fund such a study, would it?”
Marc Steben, a Montreal family doctor and chair of the Canadian Network on HPV Prevention, was more blunt.
“I don’t know who was on her (grant awarding) jury,” he said. “Someone was really sleeping.”
The uproar arose after Rail and co-author Abby Lippman, a McGill University professor emeritus, published an op-ed article in Le Devoir newspaper questioning the safety and benefits of human papillomavirus vaccines, and urging Quebec to halt HPV immunization until its alleged dangers are independently investigated.
There have been other critiques of the vaccine recently — from sources as diverse as Catholic boards of education to a now-discredited newspaper article — but Rail’s assessment stands out because of her university faculty position and federal grant to examine the issue.
She and Lippman voiced similar views at the World Congress on Public Health in India last February, heading a workshop that encouraged participants to be “on the offensive against the vaccine,” and suggesting that “politicians are paid off” to adopt the programs.
Rail said in an interview on Thursday that she has no regrets about her public commentary, and hopes her voice will help offset the “dominant discourse” on the vaccine. Among the 170 interviews that formed the core of her four-year study were some with parents who believed the shots had caused serious side effects.
“I’m sort of raising a red flag, out of respect for what I’ve found in my own study, and for the despair of parents who had totally perfect 12-year-olds who are now in their beds, too tired to go to school,” she said. “Yes, we’re going against the grain, and we are going against those who are believed, i.e. doctors and nurses and people in public health.”
The two types of HPV vaccine now on the market have been shown effective at preventing strains of the virus that cause 70% of cervical cancer, as well as some penis, anal, throat and vaginal cancers. About 1,500 Canadian women are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually, and 380 die from it.
Routine immunization of girls began in most provinces in the late 2000s.
Rail is described on the Concordia website as a feminist critic of “body-related institutions” like health industries, big pharma and the media, who favours “poststructuralist, de/postpolonial and queer approaches.”
The summary of her 2012-16 CIHR grant says there are “serious concerns” about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine but no research on how young Canadians “experience” HPV immunization.
She repeated Thursday one of her most eyebrow-raising assertions, that there is no evidence HPV is “directly” linked to cervical cancer. Many people get the virus and recover uneventfully; there are other factors also at play in cancer, she said.
Yet the science showing that HPV does cause most cervical cancer is 30 years old and well established, said Lori Frappier, who holds the Canada research chair in molecular virology at the University of Toronto. That’s why, she said, the Nobel committee awarded the 2010 medicine prize to one of its key discoverers, Harald zur Hausen.
“This is one of the best understood cancers there is,” Frappier said. “We know not only that HPV absolutely causes this cancer — because every cancer has HPV in it — but we actually know it is particular strains of HPV.”
Other experts in related fields voiced frustration and anger this week at Rail’s allegations, calling most of them blatantly false. A group of 26 scientists responded with their own letter to Le Devoir, citing in part studies suggesting the vaccine is already reducing the number of precancerous lesions and genital warts triggered by HPV, and causes few serious side effects.