Just last November, a Japanese female doctor, Riko Muranaka was awarded the 2017 John Maddox prize. This is a prestigious prize awarded annually to a person who promotes sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest in the face of hostility. The prize is awarded by a joint initiative of the science journal Nature, the Kohn Foundation, and the charity Sense about Science. Praised by many colleagues, Muranaka was awarded this prize for her work and effort in uncovering the pseudoscience and controversy of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in Japan.
The HPV vaccines are vaccines that prevent cancers such as cervical cancer caused by the human papillomavirus infection. It is also a well-established cause of other anogenital cancers as well as head and neck cancers. HPV is a very common virus and nearly 80 million people, approximately one in four people, are infected. Cervical cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in women who are under 40 years. According to the National Cancer Center in Japan, each year about 27,000 women develops cancer and around 2,900 dies. Despite the clear benefits to this vaccination, the vaccines are not recommended in Japan. Why is this? In countries all over the world, the HPV vaccines are recognized by public health and science groups as safe and effective. In the United States, the vaccines are recommended for boys and girls ages 9 to 26. For this to be clearly understood, the history of HPV vaccinations in Japan needs to be unraveled.
Japan included the HPV vaccines in the national immunization program in 2013 but stopped recommending it immediately after many alleged victims have expressed that they experienced pain, walking problems, seizures, and other neurological issues following the jab. Despite the claim by the Vaccine Adverse Reactions Review Committee, established by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, that the symptoms were most likely psychosomatic, the vaccinations caused a widespread national reaction, leading the vaccination rates in the country to collapse from 70% to less than 1%.
When asked about the issue Dr. Muranaka stated, “There is no controversy in the scientific community. Because of the influence of the media, the misleading government decision to suspend proactive recommendations for the HPV vaccines, and the very organized anti-vaccine movements, it became like this.” Doctors who coined the syndrome as HPV Vaccination Associated Neuro-immunopathic Syndrome (HANS) based their claims on patients’ complaints and impressions and did not show valid scientific evidence for their hypothesis. One doctor, Dr. Shuichi Ikeda conducted an experiment with a mouse to support this belief that the HPV vaccinations were responsible for the neurological symptoms. According to his research, when 3 mice were given the flu, Hepatitis B, and HPV vaccine respectively and were observed 10 months later, the brain section of the mouse vaccinated with HPV showed abnormal autoantibody. His experiment was broadcasted on various TV news programs in the nation. Upon investigating the research that was conducted, Dr. Muranaka discovered that the brain section findings that were published were not actually from the HPV injected mouse. The doctors had just injected vaccines into a genetically modified mouse that produce autoantibody naturally just by aging and sprayed the serum from the mouse to the brain sections of normal mice to show brain damage supposedly caused by the HPV vaccination. In fact, the mouse that was used received a dose that was 100 times greater than normal.
As both a doctor and a journalist, Dr. Muranaka has faced many obstacles in her path to uncover the truth. When she exposed the alleged fabrication of the research, Dr. Ikeda filed a lawsuit against her, claiming defamation. As a result, Dr. Muranaka had been subjected to media threats, her regular written columns on the newspaper dropped, and publishers decided to not publish her book. She also endured personal threats and threats to her family, according to BBC. Despite the backlash, however, Dr. Muranaka continues to fight against the anti-vaccine movements. She hopes for those in middle and high school to “know the truth, decide and protect themselves.”
Unfortunately, Muranaka’s work still hasn’t turned Japan’s situation with HPV. The HPV shot coverage rates continue to decrease and remain below 1%. Though government suspension and societal discouragement through propaganda are greatly limiting the millions of young Japanese people to get the shot, it is important for us to be aware of this situation. As the future generation of this world, we now have a very important choice to make. Taking the vaccination will prevent cancer - that much is informatively stated everywhere. We can prevent getting high death rate diseases just with a simple jab of medicine. However, vaccines are not so much for the individual, but rather for the population of the nation as a whole. Herd immunity is a form of immunity that provides a measure of protection for individuals who have not developed immunity. It effectively stops the spread of the disease in the community by protecting those who are vulnerable to the disease. Because the vaccination rates have dropped significantly in the past years, there is a very high risk of exposure amongst young adults in Japan and thus, will potentially result in serious implications in the future. It is also important to note that not taking the vaccination has its implications in foreign countries. If adolescents continue to not take the vaccinations in Japan, there could be a risk of ostracization. As the HPV infection is transmitted sexually, it is probable for those who have not taken the vaccinations to be rejected from the nations who are expected to take the vaccines.
The ultimate decision on whether to take the vaccination or not is up to the individual. To those who are entering adolescence or through it now, it is important to start thinking. Of course, we cannot ignore the various young girls who have developed symptoms after the vaccination. However, we must not let those cases and our emotion influence our decision especially in an issue that threatens public health. We must keep an open mind and work together to establish a safe and healthy community.
For further reading:
Dr. Muranaka’s Speech: https://note.mu/rikomuranaka/n/nd26c1eaacb3e