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Human Papilloma Virus and Cervical Cancer

Posted Mar 10 2014 12:00am

After I say that Nobel Prize in Medicine is usually given for research of little or no proven value, one counterexample I’ve heard is the 2008 prize for the discovery that cervical cancer is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). This should allow us to reduce cervical cancer via vaccination.

There are several things wrong with this example:

1. The predicted improvement has not been observed. The average age at which a woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer is 48 years old. To assess the effect of HPV vaccination usually given to young girls on cervical cancer you need to wait thirty years . Thirty years haven’t passed. The history of medicine is full of examples where treatments that supposedly worked such as tonsillectomies, given to millions when tested turned out to not work. The history of medicine is also full of examples where supposedly wonderful treatments (e.g., frontal lobotomies) turned out to have side effects so bad the treatment was stopped.

2. Cervical cancer is not a big source of death. In the United States, it kills perhaps five thousand women per year. Heart disease kills hundreds of thousands of people per year; so do all forms of cancer taken together. And pap smears, which cost little, actually work. “Cervical cancer is 100% curable if detected early,” says one website .

3. Because pap smears work well, it isn’t clear there is room for improvement. To find out you’d want to compare two groups: (a) pap smears plus HPV vaccination and (b) pap smears alone.

4. It isn’t clear the vaccine will work, even if HPV infection does cause cancer. There are at least 100 varieties of HPV; the vaccine protects against two. Does vaccination against two varieties increase infection by other varieties (because different viruses compete for the same niche)? Hard to rule this out. Again, there are many examples in medicine where actually helping people turned out to be far harder than experts had predicted, even when the initial idea wasn’t nonsense. An example is the oncogene theory of cancer, which also has a Nobel Prize associated with it.

In summary, not a counterexample.

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