Perhaps the greatest fear for any parent is that their child will die before they do. Such events must be incredibly hard to bear, particularly if the death is unexplained and unexpected,  & my heart goes out to any parents in such a situation.

Sometimes, particularly where the death is unexplained, all sorts of alternative hypotheses can be put up, perhaps as a way of dealing with the grief. And unfortunately, sometimes those hypotheses can offer fertile ground for proponents of pseudoscience to put down roots. Grant and Orac have both posted on one such case, a young New Zealand woman whose untimely death has been attributed by her mother to the Gardasil vaccine that she received 6 months prior (despite the fact that other causes – some potentially heritable – may have come into play).

This death is currently the subject of a coroner’s inquiry, during which a couple of overseas ‘experts’ have had the opportunity to present their views to the coronial court. Expertise, and views, that require rather closer scrutiny than has yet been afforded by the media. Orac has already done his usual very thorough job but I wanted to add a couple of points.

In the Otago Daily Times* we read that

Neuroscientist Profefssor Christopher Shaw of the University of Columbia in Vancouver told the inquest … that he was sent Ms Renata’s brain tissue to test. He said there was aluminium in all the samples he tested and there were some abnrmalities in the samples. The human papillomavirus (HPV16) was found in her brain, which could only have got there through the vaccine, Prof Shaw said…He said there was a “biological plausibility” that [the vaccine caused her death] because of the abnormalities in her brain he had examined.

In addition,

Dr San Hang Lee, a pathologist at Milford Hospital in Connecticut, told the inquest … that he tested samples from Ms Renata’s blood and spleen. He also found aluminium and HPV in her system, from the vaccine. Dr Lee could not say for sure what caused Ms Renata’s death, but said the results he found from testing samples from her were “unnatural”.

Aluminium is the third most abundant element on Earth. It’s present in the food we eat and the liquids we drink. So it’s hardly surprising that either ‘expert’** would find aluminium in the dead woman’s tissues. (We’re not told whether either of them used control samples when doing their analyses.) Aluminium is used as an adjuvant in some vaccines – but there’s no way of distinguishing the various sources of Al in someone’s tissues and in addition, the quanitity of Al used as an adjuvant in Gardasil is comparable to that ingested daily via food and drink*** (& vaccines are not delivered on a daily basis).

Both men said that they found abnormal or “unnatural” results, but we’re not told (in this article anyway) what “unnatural” actually means. How does it compare with ‘normal’? Who knows?

And HPV in the brain, ‘which could only have got there through the vaccine’? First up, you’d want to know how the virus was detected: the amount of HPV DNA in Gardasil is tiny, and only a fraction of that would make it into the bloodstream, and a fraction of that again into the brain. Any testing regime would need to be extremelysensitive and also extremely robust, with suitable controls. Was this the case? We don’t know; certainly neither ‘expert’ is reported as giving this information. In addition, human papilloma virus isn’t spread only via intercourse. In fact, HPV – including the HPV16 strain – is also found in dermal warts. So there are other potential sources of HPV virus particles.

And as one of Orac’s regular commenters noted:

If tiny traces of HPV DNA cause sudden death, I would expect most warts (which are essentially HPV DNA factories) to be fatal.

Again, this is a very sad story – made even sadder by the fact that the focus on a vaccine as a potential cause of death is obscuring other possible causes.


* The ODT story also gives a more measured response from a pathologist, further down the page.

** A search of the staff at Milford Hospital, Connecticut, does not bring up Dr Lee’s name.

*** someone using antacid tablets would receive a much higher dose.

There’s a lot of information on the development and testing of the Gardasil vaccine here, and the US National Cancer Institute provides more general information.


11/08/2012  Something else (courtesy of another of Orac’s commenters: the HPV virus infects squamous cells – the type you find in skin & other eplthelia. It does this by locking onto receptors that are peculiar to squamous cells. Neurons (the type of cell found in the brain & nervous system) are not squamous cells. (Which should be a case of ’nuff said.)