HPV vaccines are safe – but search engines mislead parents

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

January 4th, 2018

Gary Finnegan

‘Vaccines that protect against cervical cancer are very safe and very effective. Yet a new study shows that some parents seeking information about the vaccines are being taken to websites of dubious quality.’

Vaccines that protect against cervical cancer are very safe and very effective. Yet a new study shows that some parents seeking information about the vaccines are being taken to websites of dubious quality.

Why vaccinate?

Cervical cancer is the second biggest cause of female cancer worldwide. It is estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) that every year approximately 500,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 300,000 women die from the disease. The most effective way of tackling cervical cancer is through prevention: immunisation, cervical screening (Pap smear) and HPV testing. It has been estimated by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health that alongside regular screening, vaccination could reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer by up to 94% (compared to no intervention). The two licensed HPV vaccines have been proven effective mainly against the two strains of the virus responsible for around 70% of cervical cancers worldwide. Because not all types of cancer causing HPV are covered by the vaccines, women are still advised to attend regular cervical screening where available.

First things first: cervical cancer kills hundreds of thousands of women every year. It is caused by several human papilloma viruses (HPV). Cervical screening and HPV testing helps to reduce the risk of death by detecting cancer early, and vaccines can protect against infection with the most common strains of HPV.

However, perhaps because HPV vaccination is relatively new, there are plenty of parents who first hear the term when it’s time to have their child vaccinated.

WATCH: How are vaccines developed?

One of the first things many parents do is look for information online. The trouble is that a new study shows that Google directs web-users to some very poor quality websites.

Some of these sites stoke parental worry without introducing readers to scientifically sound information. And, because these sites are then read and shared with others, their search engine ranking remains high.

What should I read?

If you have just stumbled across this page in search of information about HPV vaccines, here are some high-quality, rigorously researched websites to visit:


The last link is important. If you scour the web you will find concerns about illnesses reported in adolescent girls who had received the vaccine.

Vaccine critics called for a thorough investigation to see if there was any connection at all between the vaccine and these rare illnesses. This is what the committee of experts at the European Medicines Agency studied. Their conclusion was that the vaccines are very safe and, as we already knew, are saving lives every single year.

The number of illnesses that had been reported in girls who had received the vaccine were “consistent with what would be expected naturally in this age group without any administration of the vaccine”.

In other words, if you look at a large group of teenage girls, a small number of them will – regardless of whether they have had a vaccine – be ill. Vaccination is irrelevant.

Intuitively, it was an understandable question. But it has now been carefully answered: the vaccines are safe.

Online opportunities

If you’re reading this because you’re interested in health and the internet, it’s worth noting that it’s not all bad.

There are some initiatives – such as the Health on the Net trust mark and the WHO’s Vaccine Safety Net project of which we are members – designed to improve the quality of online health information.

And some experts see potential for harnessing the power of social media to share accurate information that answers the specific questions people have.

We sat down with Luis Luque of the Norut Research Institute recently. In this video interview, he discusses how vaccine critics are using social media but explains that the same tools can be used to highlight public health messages.

Back to basics

Let’s end as we finished, with a reminder of why cervical cancer vaccines were developed in the first place. HPV causes a cancer that kills; its victims often include young women in their prime.

Take Jo Maxwell, a 40-year-old mother-of-three who died of cervical cancer and in whose name Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust was created. Her life was cut short before HPV vaccines were available.

If you prefer stats to anecdotes, re-read this sentence until it sinks in: Jo is one of 300,000 women who die every year from cervical cancer.

We leave you with a short video from a mother who, having had a cancer scare herself 20 years ago, describes how she felt when it was time for her own daughter to be vaccinated.