Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Journal temporarily removes paper linking HPV vaccine to behavioral issues

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1-s2.0-S0264410X16X00084-cov150hThe editor in chief of Vaccine has removed a paper suggesting a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine can trigger behavioral changes in mice.

The note doesn’t provide any reason for the withdrawal, although authors were told the editor asked for further review.

Two co-authors on the paper — about Gardasil, a vaccine against HPV — have previously suggested that aluminum in vaccines is linked to autism, in research a World Health Organization advisory body concluded was “seriously flawed.”

Approximately 80 million doses of Gardasil were administered in the U.S. between 2006 and 2015. Both the the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have ruled the vaccine to be safe — the CDC, for instance, calls it “safe, effective, and recommended.”

The journal published an uncorrected proof of “Behavioral abnormalities in young female mice following administration of aluminum adjuvants and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine Gardasil” online on January 9th, 2016. In its place now is a note that says:

The publisher regrets that this article has been temporarily removed. A replacement will appear as soon as possible in which the reason for the removal of the article will be specified, or the article will be reinstated.

Since the article had not yet been officially published in the journal, it’s not indexed by Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

According to Vaccine’s publisher Elsevier, articles in press have been accepted for publication, and have been peer reviewed.

The uncorrected proof version of the paper had already received coverage from health activism site Natural Medicine. According to the abstract:

It appears that Gardasil via its Al adjuvant and HPV antigens has the ability to trigger neuroinflammation and autoimmune reactions, further leading to behavioral changes.

We asked last author Yehuda Shoenfeld, who works at Tel Aviv University in Israel, what happened. He forwarded us an email from a co-author who had contacted the journal, asking why the paper had been removed:

This morning we tried to access it through PubMed and we found that there has been a TEMPORARY REMOVAL. We will like to know the reason or if this happened because you are uploading the last version of the paper after the Corrected Proofs; and if this is the case when it will be available again.

The forwarded email from Shoenfeld includes the managing editor’s response:

The article in question has been temporarily removed as requested by Vaccine’s Editor-in-Chief Gregory Poland. In addition, Dr Poland has recommended the article be further reviewed.

In 2012, The World Health Organization’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety examined two studies by two co-authors on the current paper, Christopher A. Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovi of the University of British Columbia, which suggested aluminum adjuvants in vaccines could be associated with autism. The advisory committee found the research to be “seriously flawed:”

The core argument made in these studies is based on ecological comparisons of aluminium content in vaccines and rates of autism spectrum disorders in several countries. In general, ecological studies cannot be used to assert a causal association because they do not link exposure to outcome in individuals, and only make correlations of exposure and outcomes on population averages. Therefore their value is primarily for hypothesis generation. However, there are additional concerns with those studies that limit any potential value for hypothesis generation. These include: incorrect assumptions about known associations of aluminium with neurological disease, uncertainty of the accuracy of the autism spectrum disorder prevalence rates in different countries, and accuracy of vaccination schedules and resulting calculations of aluminium doses in different countries.

In a 2015 article in the Globe and Mail, Shaw and Tomljenovi defended their work:

In an e-mail, Prof. Shaw said the WHO is “entitled to its opinion” but that “I don’t feel that those who actually work in aluminum toxicity research would agree with their critiques.” He also compared the term “anti-vaccine” to a racial or ethnic slur.

Ms. Tomljenovic said their research has been peer-reviewed and published in respected medical journals. She added that “there are legitimate concerns regarding the safety of vaccines and attacking those who try to bring this issue to light is not going to solve the problem.”

The editor in chief of Vaccine, Gregory Poland, has editorialized for the Mayo Clinic Proceedings about the dangers of giving attention to people who suggest the MMR vaccine may be linked to autism:

To continue pouring money into futile attempts to prove a connection to the MMR vaccine when multiple high-quality scientific studies across multiple countries and across many years have failed to show any hint of a connection, and in the face of biologic nonplausibility, is dangerous and reckless of lives, public funding, and ultimately public health.

At some point, a point I believe we have well passed, the small group of people who claim such connections, who have no new or credible data, and for which their assumptions and hypotheses have been discredited must simply be ignored by scientists and the public and, most importantly, by the media, no matter how passionate their beliefs to the contrary. Such individuals are denialists at best, and dangerous at worst.

We’ve reached out to Poland for more information on the Gardasil paper, and will update this post with anything else we learn.

Hat tip: Liz Ditz

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