Another antivaccine film disguised as a documentary, this time lying about HPV vaccines

Humans are visual creatures. That’s why one of the most effective methods to communicate a message is through visual means, and among the most powerful visual media are movies and television shows. Cranks, quacks, and antivaxers know this, and, unfortunately, they’ve increasingly been taking advantage of this by making their own propaganda movies disguised (thinly) as documentaries to promote their message. I’ve documented a number of such movies, ranging from The Beautiful Truth (a film promoting the cancer quackery known as the Gerson protocol), The Greater Good and VAXXED: From Coverup to Catastrophe (both antivaccine propaganda films), Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days, and the two movies by Eric Merola about Stanislaw Burzynski’s special brand of cancer quackery. Most of the movies are pretty amateurish and crude, but even the crude and amateurish combining of words and images, along with emotional music, can induce a powerful emotional response, particularly in an audience predisposed to believe the narrative presented and to accept that whom the film portrays as villains and heros are, in fact, actually the villains and heros.

I just became aware of another such propaganda film disguised as a documentary. It’s actually a bit low budget even for the antivaccine crowd, as it’s an effort released in three parts, the first having been released to YouTube yesterday. The title of the video is quite telling. It’s called Sacrificial Virgins: Not for the Greater Good, and here’s the first part:

Before I discuss the actual content of this first part of the series, I can’t resist commenting on the title of the propaganda video: Sacrificial Virgins. Anyone who’s followed the antivaccine movement can guess immediately which vaccine this is about, namely the HPV vaccine, which is administered to preadolescent girls. That age is chosen because it is before the vast majority of girls become sexually active, and HPV is primarily a sexually transmitted disease. So the best time to achieve immunity is before girls (and, according to the latest recommendations, boys too) become sexually active. The term “virgin” is clearly designed to play on this timing. If a woman is immune to the proper serotypes of HPV before she becomes sexually active, then the cervical cancer caused by those serotypes can be prevented. That’s how HPV vaccines work, and they are very effective.

Basically, antivaxers arguably hate and fear the HPV vaccine more than any other vaccine, with the possible exception of the MMR vaccine, because of it prevents a disease that is sexually transmitted and they do not like that at all. For instance, the more religiously-inclined among them will claim that HPV vaccination encourages promiscuity, an incredibly implausible and ridiculous claim. Teens, when presented with the opportunity to have sex, do not generally think of a cancer that they might develop 20 or 30 years later as a result. Basically, the claim that HPV vaccination leads to promiscuity is pure nonsense.

Of course, the imagery in the title is not about a loss of innocence, but a sacrifice of innocence, an image that resonates deeply in human myth, history, religion, and literature. The next question becomes: Sacrifice to what? In general, the implication of human sacrifice, particularly virgin sacrifice, is of ancient, pagan religion, and that’s clearly the imagery the video makers went for here. The implication is that vaccination for HPV is based not on science, but rather on some form of irrational, religious belief system that demands a virgin sacrifice. No one ever accused antivaxers of being subtle.

So who made these videos? Surprise! Surprise! The anti-HPV vaccine group SaneVax is responsible, along with a British group, UK Association of HPV Vaccine Injured Daughters (AHVID):

UK Association of HPV Vaccine Injured Daughters (AHVID) and SaneVax Inc. (http://sanevax.org/) are pleased to announce the release of a new HPV vaccine documentary co-produced by Joan Shenton, Meditel Productions and Yellow Entertainment. Sacrificial Virgins is a series in three parts written and narrated by Joan Shenton and directed by Andi Reiss.

I’ve written about SaneVax before on several occasions. It’s a specialized antivaccine group in that, although it not infrequently parrots pseudsocience and misinformation used by many antivaxers, SaneVax is focused almost exclusively on peddling misinformation and fear about HPV vaccines, particularly Gardasil. In particular, SaneVax has engaged in fear mongering about infinitesimally tiny amounts of HPV DNA in the vaccine and claiming that this DNA can somehow pass the blood-brain barrier in a manner that can induce autoimmunity through “microcompetition.”

I had never heard of Joan Shenton before, however. A quick Google search showed that she started out reporting for the BBC World Service. She eventually started her own production company, Meditel, and made a number of respected documentaries. In the 1980s, however, she started being attracted to pseudoscience. Specifically, she started to believe Peter Duesberg and others who denied that HIV causes AIDS, making films questioning the link. Now, or so it would appear, she’s discovered antivaccine pseudoscience late in her life. She still runs an HIV/AIDS denialist website and last year had a film of hers canceled by the London Film Festival. I hadn’t heard of Andi Reiss, either, but he’s a director who has apparently made several films with Shenton.

So let’s see what Reiss and Shenton have done.

The film starts out with an image of a girl named Ruby, who has apparently developed a neurological condition that left her mostly paralyzed. She notes that only her left arm works. Not surprisingly, we find out immediately:

Nobody knows exactly what why Ruby has developed this serious neurological damage after a healthy and active life. But it all started after she had her first of three injections of the HPV human papillomavirus vaccine—injections that are given in the hope that they’ll prevent cervical cancer.

This girl appears to be Ruby Shallom. More on her later. First, I note that the very next segment shows a bunch of pictures of girls who have supposedly died as a result of HPV. Of course, as I’ve explained many times before, when you look at these girls’ stories, the narrative that antivaxers provide is rarely particularly convincing for a causative role of the HPV vaccine in the deaths of these girls or the diseases of girls like Ruby. Shelton drones on about how “hundreds” have died and “thousands” have suffered severe adverse reactions. Never mind that this isn’t true, that large epidemiological studies have failed to find an increased death rate attributable to HPV vaccination. In any case, the film is about as subtle as a brick, showing images of virgin sacrifice throughout history, and likening HPV to them, a sacrifice for the greater good.

Next up is someone named Christian Fiala, who, not surprisingly, is an HIV/AIDS denialist and a Board member of the HIV/AIDS denialst group Rethinking AIDS. Yes, this film is heavy with HIV/AIDS denialists turned HPV vaccine denialists. As far back as 2011 he was making statements like this in WorldNetDaily:

In an email, Fiala called the HPV vaccination plan “a money-making machine without any benefit for patients. But some inherent risks.”

Officials report that there have been 17,500 or more “adverse” incident reports that have been made over the last few years because of the use of the vaccination.

Fiala, who fought the idea of vaccination with Gardasil as part of a national health standard in Austria, says he was targeted by the vaccine developers for his findings.

“The doctors involved in vaccine development submitted an official complaint … accusing me of doing harm to the image of doctors,” Fiala said. “The investigation did not go far, because I could show that I fully respect evidence based on medicine. Therefore, the investigation was closed. But it could have cost me the right to [practice] medicine. It was meant as a threat.”

He basically says the same things in the video. It’s nonsense, of course, because we know the HPV vaccine is very effective at preventing the HPV serotypes it’s aimed at, the main serotypes causing cancer. His argument that it hasn’t yet been proven to decrease the rate of cervical cancer is a disingenuous one. Cervical cancer takes 20+ years to develop after HPV infection, and the HPV vaccine hasn’t been around long enough or a high enough proportion of girls vaccinated to produce a measurable decline in cervical cancer rates—yet. Six years later it’s also not true that there is no evidence that it prevents cancer. Indeed, evidence has been nicely summarized here. He’s joined by another HIV/AIDS denialist, the granddaddy of them all actually, Peter Duesberg. Amazingly, he claims, against everything we understand, that HPV does not play a causal role in cervical cancer, while Fiala blathers about how there is “no proof” that HPV causes cervical cancer. It’s an unbelievable, breathtaking display of denial of a finding that is very well supported by science.

In fact, we do know that HPV causes cervical cancer. In fact, we know that HPV causes nearly all cervical cancers. We know which serotypes do it, and which ones are most common. (Two serotypes https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-fact-sheet.) We know a lot about how HPV causes cancer, mainly by causing precancerous changes, cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). Both Duesberg and Fiala seem to think because most CIN goes away spontaneously, thanks to the immune system, means that HPV isn’t the cause of cervical cancer. We know this not to be the case.

Fiala also claims to have identified a 19-year-old woman whose death was caused by HPV vaccination. Shenton interviews the pathologist who did the autopsy on the young woman, Prof. Dr. Johan Missliwetz. In the interview, he pointed out that his first autopsy left him unable to find a cause of death, leading him to suspect a genetic heart defect, which is, of course, one of the most common cause of unexplained deaths in young adults. Previous interviews by him don’t really show him saying vaccinations caused the woman’s death. However, in this interview, he claims that his other thought about the cause of death, besides the genetic heart defect, was HPV vaccination, even though it was three weeks after the woman’s second dose of HPV vaccine.

As for Ruby Sallom, I found an article about her rather quickly in—where else?—The Daily Mail:

A 16-year-old girl has been left paralysed in three limbs and is in hospital on a drip after having the controversial HPV jab, her parents claim.

Ruby Shallom was vaccinated at school to protect her against cervical cancer as part of the routine NHS programme.

But just weeks later, the keen horse-rider and runner started to suffer from stomach spasms, dizziness, pain, headaches and fatigue.

Her muscles became weaker and in May – two years after she was given the jab – she woke up with no feelings in her legs whatsoever.

She has since lost all sensation in both her legs and one of her arms and is virtually bed-bound – unable to eat, lift or dress herself, incontinent and often too weak to lift her head.

Doctors have been unable to diagnose her with anything and have dismissed it as being psychological, refusing to acknowledge any link to the jab.

As you can see, this is not a very compelling story. Her symptoms developed weeks (it’s not clear how many) after her HPV vaccination, and she didn’t start to develop muscle weakness until two years after having received the HPV vaccine. I also note that doctors do not suggest lightly that symptoms like this are psychosomatic. Such a conclusion is almost always a diagnosis of extreme exclusion, only after a complete investigation has been done. Also, who knows if that’s what doctors actually said? As I’ve learned from experience is that what parents say about what doctors say does not always reflect what the doctors actually said. Be that as it may, although I have great empathy for a family like this whose daughter is suffering so, whatever the cause is, I fear that the parents and Ruby are engaging in the all-too-human activity of confusing correlation with causation, based on the even more human need to find a cause for their daughter’s suffering.

Sadly, there are two more parts of this “documentary” to come. I somehow doubt that it will be as popular or influential (at least among antivaxers and the vaccine-averse) as VAXXED for the simple reason that it doesn’t have anyone as famous as Andrew Wakefield in it. However, it will likely perpetuate many of the myths SaneVax and other antivaccine groups have promulgated about HPV vaccination. They want to scare parents and girls away from the vaccine, even though it is safe and effective. Same as it ever was.