A Japanese court ruled yesterday that a medical journalist who has championed vaccination to reduce the risk of cervical cancer defamed a neurologist by writing that he had fabricated data showing a link between the vaccine and brain damage in mice.
The case had been closely watched by vaccine proponents, who worried the decision might embolden those in Japan and elsewhere who claim shots against the human papillomavirus (HPV) cause chronic pain and movement disorders in humans. To their relief, the court in Tokyo didn’t address that question; it only said that Riko Muranaka, a doctor, medical writer, and lecturer at Kyoto University in Japan, had not provided evidence that neurologist Shuichi Ikeda had made up the data behind his controversial claim.
The case comes against a backdrop of deep mistrust against the HPV vaccine, introduced in Japan in 2009 and added to the national vaccine program in April 2013. That same year, some vaccine recipients complained about severe side effects. In June 2013, the health ministry suspended its recommendation that all girls in their early teens receive the vaccine, causing the vaccination rate to drop from 70% for girls born in the mid-1990s to 1% today. The health ministry has also funded research and set up advisory panels to study the alleged side effects.
In March 2016, Ikeda, a neurologist at Shinshu University in Matsumoto, Japan, showed one such panel data purportedly showing brain damage in a mouse given the HPV vaccine. He repeated the claim for a news crew later the same day.
In the June 2016 issue of the business magazine Wedge, Muranaka claimed Ikeda had not performed the experiments himself; she also said only a single mouse had been given the vaccine, and that a slide purportedly showing brain damage in Ikeda’s presentation didn’t come from that mouse. “The inescapable conclusion is that there was an ‘intention of fabrication,’” wrote Muranaka, who in 2017 was awarded the John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science.
The magazine article triggered an investigation by Shinshu University, which concluded in November 2016 that Ikeda had presented preliminary results based on an experiment with one mouse as “scientifically proven.” Japan’s health ministry issued a statement saying Ikeda’s results “have not proven anything about whether the symptoms that occurred after HPV vaccination were caused by the HPV vaccine,” and blasting him for his “very regrettable” responsibility in “causing misunderstanding among citizens.”
But the court sidestepped questions about the vaccine itself and ruled that Muranaka had not provided convincing evidence of fabrication. Muranaka and the magazine will have to pay Ikeda 3.3 million yen (about $29,900), plus part of his legal expenses. They also must post an apology and delete portions of the online article.
Ikeda welcomed the ruling, saying a charge of fabrication would leave him “unable to address academic society,” according to press reports of a postruling press conference. He seemed to downplay the significance of what he said previously about the mouse experiments, arguing they were just one way to clarify why some vaccine recipients suffer brain disorders.
“I am sorry to hear [the] Tokyo district court ignored science and [the] public interest,” Muranaka wrote in a statement posted online. However, “This decision has nothing to do with the safety of the HPV vaccines,” she noted. Women who saw Ikeda’s presentation on TV and decided against vaccination “lost the chance to protect their life and health,” Muranaka wrote. She told Science that she will appeal. “I must win this case for the sake of freedom of scientific speech and sound science,” she says.
“I must win this case for the sake of freedom of scientific speech and sound science.”
The battle over HPV vaccines in Japan is set to continue. Vaccinees have brought class action lawsuits against two vaccine producers and the health ministry seeking damages for alleged side effects. Those suits are expected to drag on for years.
Meanwhile, evidence for the safety and efficacy of the three HPV vaccines on the worldwide market continues to grow. In a July 2017 update, for instance, the World Health Organization’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety noted that at the time 270 million doses of HPV vaccines had been distributed. There is “no evidence to suggest a causal association” between the HPV vaccine and the various syndromes or symptoms reported as side effects, the update states, adding that the committee “considers HPV vaccines to be extremely safe.” As for efficacy, the update noted that countries that have included HPV vaccines in national immunization programs have seen a 50% decrease in the incidence of cervical precancerous lesions among younger women.
Whether the verdict will have any impact outside Japan remains to be seen. “I think what is important is that media coverage does not distort the point and imply Dr. Ikeda’s science won: It was Dr. Muranaka’s manners and language that lost,” says Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.