Have you heard of the appeal to authority logical fallacy? It refers to an appeal from a someone based on his or her presumed expertise merely by being a self-described authority. Authority or not, all contentions should be proven, particularly when one is not actually an authority in a given topic.
Such is the case of James Lyons-Weiler, PhD when it comes HPV vaccines. Who is Dr Lyons-Weiler? That is a difficult question to answer because he has moved through a variety of areas of study. Looking at his Linkedin account, he has a Master’s in zoology, with a focus on paeloecology, a PhD in ecology and biology, where he studied wild flowers and computational statistics, and he did postdoctoral work in computational molecular biology related to evolutionary genetics. Since then, he has worked on a variety of data analysis and modelling projects, including lung cancer gene expression and protein evolution. He has been on the faculty at three different universities, most recently the University of Pittsburgh, where he directed the Bioinformatics Analysis Core. In the past few years, he has written several books. One is about ebola, another about autism, and the third about how he believes medicine is more motivated by profit than cures. Most recently, he founded something called The Institute for pure and applied knowledge and he has begun to be a voice in the antivaccine movement. He even has Mary Holland, famous antivax advocate and attorney, on his advisory board. He has several current projects, including the CDC Accountability Project and the FTC petition re: HPV tv ad.
The appeal to authority I am concerned with is his issue with the HPV ad, which centers around a television ad for Merck’s HPV vaccine. The ad was created by BBDO Worldwide and can be watched here, on ispot dot tv. The gist of the commercial is a man and a woman discussing that they have cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) and wouldn’t it have been nice if they could have done something as teens to prevent that virus. The point made is that the HPV vaccine can prevent HPV which then can protect the person from getting cancers associated with the virus. The viewer is directed to www.hpv.com for more information.
As part of the Vaxxed film tour, producer Del Bigtree has been posting periscope videos (made with handheld smart phones) with people all over the country. He recently sat down with James Lyons-Weiler to discuss the FTC petition and the ad. You can watch their conversation here (thank you to Karen Halabura for helping me get the video off Facebook). Dr Lyons-Weiler tells Bigtree that the ad is emotionally manipulative and makes claims not supported by science. You can view the petition and transcript of the tv ad here. Lyons-Weiler thinks the ad is false advertising and the Federal Trade Commission should remove it because of seven errors he feels Merck makes in the ad, all of which point to false advertising. The video, as of writing of this blog, has 22,000 views and nearly 800 shares. I feel it is worthwhile pointing out the mistakes Lyons-Weiler makes in this contentions because his assertions are influential enough that they are now showing up in online discussions about HPV vaccines.
Italicized points are from Lyons-Weiler while bold are from me.
(a) the knowledge that HPV vaccination does not protect against all HPV types, which could lead vaccinated consumers to act as though they are in fact protected from HPV infection in general, when, in reality, they are not; As per the provider information for Gardasil 9, the most recently available HPV vaccine in USA, it protects against HPV types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and, 58. These represent 81% of the viruses that cause cervical cancer, 74% of the other HPV-associated cancers, and 90% of the HPV types which cause anogenital warts. The ad clearly uses the word ‘could’ when they postulate that the person ‘could’ have protected from HPV back at age 11 or 12. Therefore, no false advertising.
(b) the knowledge that has resulted from numerous studies that indicate that HPV vaccination using any of the available HPV vaccines only provides partial protection against 2, 4 or 9 types of HPV, when in reality there are at least 100 HPV viral types that can replace those that the vaccination removes from an individual or from the population; Gardasil 9 offers protection from most of the HPV types that cause cancer. Therefore, no false advertising.
(c) the knowledge that women should continue to get Pap smears after HPV vaccination to screen for infection (as expected given type replacement); The Merck ad is aimed at both men and women, boys and girls, and states that everyone should talk to their doctor. The implication is the doctor will tell the patient the benefit of yearly exams, both for men and women. The ad does not imply nor state that the vaccine should replace yearly wellness exams. Therefore, no false advertising.
(d) the knowledge that HPV vaccine has been found to fail to lead to a decrease in overall HPV infection rates, according to study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Markowitz et al., 2016); Strangely, Lyons-Weiler’s own source proves him wrong. Markowitz, et al, concluded that, 6 years after vaccine introduction, there was a 64% decrease in 4xHPV type prevalence in females aged 14 to 19. Therefore, no false advertising.
(e) the knowledge of side effects of HPV vaccination, including death, paralysis, premature ovarian failure, seizures and blindness; There have been many large studies of HPV vaccine safety, in various countries, and none have found any significant relationship between the vaccine and serious adverse events. As the ad clearly states to get more information from your doctor, and you get a vaccine information sheet with reach vaccine which clearly outlines risks and benefits, then again, There is no false advertising.
(f) the knowledge of alternatives to the vaccines for protection against HPV; Del and Lyons-Weiler spend a great deal of time talking about safe sex in the interview. Lyons-Weiler stays that HPV is a lifestyle disease and practicing unsafe sex is what needs to change. Since 95% of women clear the virus in the first two years, and there is a drug, according to him, in clinical trials that will completely cure the virus, there is no need to vaccinate. He does not seem to notice his statements are contradictory. He wants women to abstain from sex but then he also wants women not to worry about the virus because there is a cure for it coming soon. Del claims that pap smears stop HPV in it’s tracks, which is completely untrue. A pap smear can only (hopefully) detect if you have cancer or not. It is not a cure nor a treatment for cancer. They both routinely fail to tell their audience how this virus also affects men and they fail to inform that nearly all sexually active people will, at some point in their life, usually in early adulthood, acquire HPV infection. Yes, HPV is passed as a sexually transmitted infection but you can pass it via oral, anal, or vaginal sex or even just contact with sexual fluids (what my mother’s generation called heavy petting). Condoms do not prevent HPV as it can infect areas a condom does not cover. The only way to guarantee you will never get HPV is to never engage in any sexual activity with anyone other than the one partner you will have and keep for your entire life, assuming they also have only had one partner their entire life. As this is not a reasonable goal for most people, and sex is a natural, biological function, this vaccine is an important part of having a HEALTHY life. Vaccination is one key part of staying healthy. The only alternative to vaccination is abstinence and that is not a valid choice for all. Furthermore, human papillomaviruses can also cause oral and anal cancers, none of which are detectable by pap smears. Therefore, no false advertising.
(g) the knowledge that indiscriminate use of HPV vaccination in a population not screened for HPV infection may increase (double) the risk of HPV-associated cancer. Lyons-Weiler does not qualify this statement with any details so one must conclude this allegation is false. In the film interview with Bigtree, Lyons-Weiler states he believes that getting the HPV vaccine while already infected may be a problem but he, again, does not qualify this statement with any supporting evidence. Therefore, no false advertising.
The conversation between Del Bigtree and James Lyons-Weiler, regarding HPV vaccine, is rife with dangerous myths about both human papillomaviruses and the HPV vaccine. In just the few days since it first aired, I have noticed comments online being made that bear striking resemblance to those of Lyons-Weiler. He has influenced people. This vaccine already has so many dangerous myths associated with it that it is a shame to now have more. As a person who lost a lovely cousin to cervical cancer, a cousin who did have yearly pap smears, I know that Bigtree and Lyons-Weiler are doing is going to cost lives that could have been prevented. My own children are or will be protected with this vaccine. Like tens of millions world-wide, they have had no serious side effects to any vaccine, ever, in their lives.
Why is Lyons-Weiler engaged in this battle against HPV vaccine? On his website, he discusses a great many different projects, including several related to vaccines. It is troubling to me that he is spreading myths and lies about vaccines while, at the same time, asking for donations for his multiple projects. Usually, scientists with his level of education work for a research institute or university and they write grants to fund their projects. I have no real idea why Lyons-Weiler is no longer involved in the standard type of research, but I find it deeply troubling that he is stirring up vaccine waters.
As always, be sure to think for yourself!
My sources for information and facts on HPV vaccine and cancers related to HPV.
- Gardasil 9 – provider information sheet
- Pink Book chapter on Human Papillomavirus
- Gardasil Myths debunked at Skeptical Raptor blog
- Prevalence of HPV After Introduction of the Vaccination
- CDC page on human papillomavirus information
- Ways to prevent HPV infection