‘Sacrificial virgins’: Balancing freedom of speech and issues of public health

Amanda Lyons

3/08/2018 2:07:02 PM

British broadcaster Joan Shenton may fail to gain a visa to support her anti-HPV vaccine documentary in Australia. Does this help the interests of the greater good, and how should GPs address any patient concerns raised by the film?

The anti-HPV vaccination documentary ‘Sacrificial virgins’ alleges the HPV vaccine has caused neurological damage and even deaths in young women.
The anti-HPV vaccination documentary ‘Sacrificial virgins’ alleges the HPV vaccine has caused neurological damage and even deaths in young women.

Joan Shenton’s film, Sacrificial virgins: Not for the greater good, is a short documentary focused on exposing alleged dangers of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. It includes claims that HPV does not, in fact, cause cervical cancer and that the vaccine itself causes neurological damage.
Screenings of the film have been organised for locations in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, and it was originally planned that Ms Shenton would be present at each for a panel discussion and question-and-answer session. However, Ms Shenton’s visa may be denied by the Home Affairs department.
‘Any individual that wishes to come to Australia must apply for the appropriate visa stream,’ a spokesperson for the Home Affairs Department told SBS news.  
‘For example, individuals intending to work in Australia must apply for an appropriate visa with work rights.’
But the Australian Vaccination-Risks Network (AVN), which organised the film screenings and Ms Shenton’s accompanying tour, has argued that preventing Ms Shenton from accessing the country to speak at the screenings amounts to an attack on freedom of speech.
Dr David Hawkes, Director of Microbiology at the Victorian Cytology Service and spokesperson for pro-vaccination group Stop the AVN, disagrees with the AVN’s assertions.
‘[Ms Shenton] is appearing at all these events by video link. She is still able to have her voice heard,’ he told newsGP.
‘But in Australia, as a country, we don’t have to give her a platform. You can google her on the web, you can go to Facebook live, you can see all these things any time you want and the government hasn’t shut the channels on it.
‘But that doesn’t mean [people like Ms Shenton] would be allowed to stand up at a town hall event and say those things.’
According to public health physician Associate Professor Julia Brotherton, there is very good reason to prevent Ms Shenton’s claims from being widely disseminated. Namely that they are demonstrably false.
‘There is robust evidence from high-quality population-based studies to show that HPV vaccination is not associated with neurological diseases,’ she told newsGP
‘The WHO [World Health Organization] Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety has explicitly reviewed their safety seven times to date and continues to find them safe and effective in this, their 13th year of use around the world. 
‘They are not new vaccines and are some of the most well-researched vaccines we have ever had.’
Dr Hawkes highlights the incredible gains that have been provided by the HPV vaccine in Australia.
‘Essentially, we’ve lost genital warts,’ he said. ‘Within a few years in the Australian [vaccination] program, genital warts had dropped by over 80% in women. And they’d dropped over 80% with men who have sex with women, even though none of them were vaccinated.’
Associate Professor Brotherton is concerned about the effect the message of Ms Shenton’s film may have on worried parents and their decision to allow children to participate in the vaccination program.
‘I think science deniers like Ms Shenton are attempting to cause anxiety amongst parents by presenting sad stories of children, who are no doubt seriously unwell, and blaming their illness on vaccination despite the absence of any scientific evidence that that is the case,’ she said.
‘We can only hope our community has enough scientific literacy and trust in our medical profession, scientists and experts who fully endorse the vaccine as a highly safe and effective way of preventing cancer.’
Dr Hawkes is against the anti-vax message of Ms Shenton’s film, but he remains sympathetic to the concerns of worried parents. He observes that while the vaccine’s efficacy is backed by solid research, a data-based argument is not likely to be effective when addressing what are usually emotive concerns.
‘This is not a data issue, it’s how people feel and how they engage, and they trust the people they have a relationship with,’ he said.
Dr Lara Roeske, GP and cervical screening expert, believes this trusted relationship is exactly what makes GPs the ideal health professionals to assist parents and patients with vaccine concerns.
‘GPs can inform patient decision-making and broadcast key messages to the communities they serve,’ she told newsGP. ‘This is particularly important when media platforms endorse dangerous and unsubstantiated health advice generating uncertainty, fear or misperception in the public domain. 
‘GPs can ensure patients access accurate information about the safety and effectiveness of HPV vaccination, including explaining the risks of not having the vaccine.
‘The key message is HPV vaccination with screening prevents cervical cancer, saving the lives of women.’
Dr Hawkes believes it is vital to identify the specific nature of a patient’s concerns, as this can help to shape a GP’s response.
‘If a patient says, “I’ve heard the injection is really painful”, you’re dealing with a different situation than if they say, “I think the vaccine will give me cancer”,’ he said.
‘So have a conversation with the patient, understand what their concerns are and address them directly and succinctly.’
It may also be necessary to accept that educating patients on vaccination may be a slow process.
‘You might not be able to change that person’s mind then, but you can start a dialogue with them,’ Dr Hawkes said. ‘Then next time they might have some other questions [about vaccines] and you answer them, and next time some other questions and you answer them.’
While Ms Shenton may not be on Australian soil while her film is screening, the show will still go on.
Meanwhile, supporters of vaccination can take comfort knowing that Federal Health Minister
Greg Hunt is on their side.
‘The science is in and the medical experts’ advice is absolute – vaccinations save and protect lives and they are an essential part of a healthy society,’ Minister Hunt told Fairfax Media.
‘I have no time for the false and reckless claims made by anti-vaxxers and I will continue to call out their dangerous claims.’

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LJW   3/08/2018 6:41:42 PM

Maybe you should read:
"The Cochrane HPV vaccine review was incomplete and ignored important evidence of bias"

Mika Thane   11/08/2018 7:44:36 PM

The film, written and narrated by Joan Shenton, features Christian Fiala and Peter Duesberg, and was funded by wealthy Californian businessman Robert Leppo.

Ms Shenton, Dr Fiala, Dr Duesberg and Mr Leppo are the key members of the HIV/AIDS denialist group Rethinking AIDS, which had some success in the early 2000s in convincing the South African Government that HIV was not the cause of AIDS.

According to separate analyses performed at Harvard University and the University of Cape Town, they are responsible for more than 300,000 preventable deaths in South Africa between 1999 and 2007:

As well as denying that HIV cause AIDS and that HPV causes cervical and other cancers, they also deny that HCV causes liver disease.