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Japanese court orders public health campaigner to pay ¥3.3 million to anti-vaccine researcher

Published on 27/03/19 at 05:30pm

Dr Riko Muranaka, a researcher and journalist who has campaigned against misinformation surrounding vaccines, has been ordered to pay ¥3.3 million ($30,000) in damages and legal fees to a controversial university professor who claimed the HPV vaccine was linked to neurological symptoms and brain damage.

The case has been seen as a major setback for those fighting misinformation surrounding vaccines.

Dr Muranaka was ordered by a court to pay Dr Shuichi Ikeda (the former dean of the medical school at Shinshu University) ¥3.3 million, after Dr Ikeda took Dr Muranaka to court over an article she had written which criticised his research.

The libel case came to focus on Dr Muranaka’s use of the word ‘fabricated’ in describing an experiment conducted by Dr Ikeda on a mouse. The court found that Dr Ikeda had in fact conducted the experiment on the mouse.

However the ruling did not take into account the broader point that Dr Ikeda’s conclusions had been based on data from a single mouse. Dr Ikeda’s data has never been replicated in humans.

While an internal investigation, conducted by Shinshu University did clear Dr Ikeda of fabricating the experiment, investigators criticised him for presenting preliminary evidence from one mouse as a conclusive research result.

Nevertheless, Dr Muranaka, who was awarded the John Maddox prize for promoting evidence-based science in the face of adversity, will have to pay Dr Ikeda the sum of ¥3.3 million.

“This judgment turns an issue of science into an issue of libel and for doctors and scientists that is unacceptable,” said Isamu Ishiwata, who chairs a group called Protecting The Lives We Can. “The contents of the judgement have nothing to do with the safety of the cervical cancer vaccine.”

The ruling comes after coverage rates for the HPV vaccine fell from 70% in 2013, to less than 1% today. The fall in coverage was directly related to Dr Ikeda’s research. The Japanese health ministry subsequently stopped recommending the HPV vaccine.

The Japanese Health Ministry did however Dr Ikeda in stating: “Dr Ikeda bears a large social responsibility for inviting public misunderstanding through his inappropriate announcement. Nonetheless, the ministry has declined to restart the HPV vaccination programme”

Dr Ikeda said he was pleased with the result. “For a researcher, the word ‘fabrication’ is lethal,” Dr Ikeda said to Japanese media. “If ‘fabrication’ were attached to me I’d lose my standing to say anything at an academic conference.”

Dr Muranaka highlighted the damage caused by scepticism of the HPV vaccines: “Women who decided not to vaccinate lost their chance to protect their life and health. The negative impact of Ikeda’s message that the HPV vaccine caused damage to the brains of mice is enormous.”

“Unfounded rumours about HPV vaccines continue to unnecessarily delay or impede the scaling up of vaccination, which is so urgently needed to prevent cervical cancer,” said Elisabete Weiderpass, director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer

Louis Goss

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