Retraction Watch reports that a paper published online in the journal Vaccine last month and temporarily removed weeks later has now officially been retracted. The paper, which drew a connection between

behavioural problems in mice and the vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), has been replaced by this notice:

“This article has been withdrawn at the request of the Editor-in-Chief due to serious concerns regarding the scientific soundness of the article. Review by the Editor-in-Chief and evaluation by outside experts, confirmed that the methodology is seriously flawed, and the claims that the article makes are unjustified. As an international peer-reviewed journal we believe it is our duty to withdraw the article from further circulation, and to notify the community of this issue.”

Co-author Christopher A. Shaw of the University of British Columbia told Retraction Watch that although the findings in mice could not be directly linked to any health implications in humans, he believed the results of the study showed that Gardasil, the vaccine questioned in the study, should face greater scrutiny.

The retraction comes just days after reports that Gardasil seems to be significantly decreasing HPV rates in women. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that can lead to genital warts, but certain strains of it are linked to much more serious illness: About 70 per cent of cases of cervical cancer in US women are caused by two strains of the virus. The vast majority of studies (including reviews by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) have concluded that the vaccine is safe. The CDC recommends that all children ages 11 or 12 get the vaccine, and some school districts now require it for girls.

But as with any vaccine, Gardasil has its naysayers: Although actual rates of reported severe adverse effects are quite low (and none have been conclusively linked to the vaccine), anecdotal reports have been used as evidence against the drug’s safety. The European Medicines Agency is working on an investigation of these reported symptoms, but emphasised that the review “does not question that the benefits of HPV vaccines outweigh their risks”.

Along with co-author Lucija Tomljenovic, Shaw has previously been blasted for two studies suggesting that the aluminum content in vaccines could be linked to autism. Those studies were also deemed “seriously flawed” and condemned by the World Health Organisation.

When Gregory Poland, the editor in chief of Vaccine, first requested that the study be pulled for further review, Tomljenovic suggested to Metro Vancouver that pharmaceutical lobbying may have been to blame for the scrutiny.

“The reason for ‘temporarily’ removing our paper may be this: if it was to be wildly circulated it would deprive the world of these allegedly ‘life saving’ cervical cancer vaccines, and as a result ‘million of women’ would surely die,” Tomljenovic wrote in an email to the Canadian outlet. “That could not be further from the truth, but that is what pharma would have us believe.”

Shaw has maintained – in this and in his other controversies – that he and his collaborators are not “anti-vaxxers”. But the retractions highlight a real issue: Can a journal ethically publish work that would add fuel to anti-vaccination fires? The editor of a paleontology journal would not have to agree that the authors of a new study had found a new species of dinosaur in order to publish their work – only that they’d conducted sound research and that their claims weren’t totally outlandish. But should that same live-and-let-science mentality hold when a very anti-science movement will pounce on the published results and use them as evidence, possibly to the detriment of human health and wellness?

And on the other hand, when can research be allowed to be critical of particular vaccines without being “anti-vax?” The previous work of the authors involved in the study certainly colours the appearance of the latest retraction. But what if something were really wrong? Ideally, other scientists would examine the same question (because that’s exactly how science is supposed to work) and publish their own results. Just as the safety of vaccines in general (and Gardasil in particular) has become the scientific consensus based on many studies instead of one, reports of risks will have to hold up under further examination, too.

And on the other (other) hand, the sad reality is that the retraction - whatever the exact motivation behind it – will not stop many in the anti-vaccination camp from taking the study as gospel. It would be naive not to expect reports of a “coverup” in those circles. The process of scientific peer review and publication is admittedly murky, and the pulling of a controversial study probably won’t go over well among those who thought that it confirmed their fears.

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