Ministry of Health HPV resource poor science!

by Scientist/Teacher Michael Fenton

(Microsoft Innovative Teacher, Ministry of Education eLearning Fellow, Medical Microbiologist)

Public interest

This article reamains for two reasons

  • For historical purposes
  • To show that science educators must be vigilant and CAN make a difference!

First, the good news...the Ministry of Health has corrected the errors of fact outlined below as a consequence of receiving this article.

We originally wondered how such an appalling resource be produced by 'medical experts' in the first place

Ministry of Health thinks a T4 phage looks like Human Papilloma virus

The DVD resource

The New Zealand Ministry of Health rolled out a national vaccination programme administering the Cervical Cancer Vaccine / Human Papilloma Virus Immunisation Programme. To support the community nurses that operated the programme from within schools, a DVD was produced supposedly providing factual information about what HPV is and how the immunisation process (using Gardasil) worked.

I was fortunate in being able to watch the DVD but I was appalled at the totally incorrect animations used in the video.

A reason for concern

From past experience with incorrect information in NCEA exam papers, I couldn't help worrying how many science teachers will regurgitate the nonsense on the DVD.

A golden opportunity for a good science lesson missed!

About half the population has been denied accurate information that could have made a real difference in the teaching and understanding of microbiology in schools. A number of old and new questions come to light as a consequence of the Ministry of Health Human Papillomavirus / Cervical Cancer Vaccine DVD seen recently in schools;

  • Should a Ministry outside of education be permitted to present material in schools that is factually incorrect?
  • Is it the ethical, moral or professional duty of expert teachers to challenge the accuracy of information in presentations like this?
  • How much 'political correctness' is involved in programmes such as these that put pressure on teachers to conform and keep concerns 'quiet'?
  • Who ultimately is responsible for 'education' anyway and how should expert teachers deal with conflicting information or contentious community issues?
  • Who should check the quality and accuracy of resources (including NCEA exam questions, study guides and ICT resouces)? Are teachers the best resource creators or should graphic artists be permitted to 'interpret' reality and portray it in as a matter of convenience?
  • When will the New Zealand government take science seriously and put the equipment and professional training, which research indicates is long overdue, into classrooms preparing students for the 21st Century?

The DVD video animation, which is also provided at the Ministry of Health 'One for the Girls' website, was so bad that students at a local high school noticed the glaring errors outlined below. Why didn't the 'health professionals' enlist the help of teaching professionals? If they did, why was such a poor job done, and will the MoH go to better expert teachers next time they want ot make a teaching resource?

Its not the first time concerns have been raised...

The New Zealand Microbiology Society (NZMS) has only recently met to discuss problems relating to the teaching of microbiological science in schools. Indeed this website includes reviews of educational resources and letters to NZQA about the perpetuation of the same silly errors year after year in New Zealand study guides and NCEA examinations.

Because the HPV vaccination programme is a national campaign, I believe, from past experience as a exam marker, there is a good chance that the NCEA examiner will include the HPV vaccination programme as a context for asking about virus replication.

So what exactly is wrong?

Is there an obsession with 'cool' ICT and eLearning gimmicks over the truthful representation of facts?

Your challenge! Can you identify this squid-like creature swimming around the human blood stream?

NO, it is NOT HPV...

It looks like some computer graphics boffin has decided that viruses display animal like characteristics... and has modfied a T4 phage...and then labelled this as a HPV.

Nice graphics but sends the wrong message. Even 'non' biology students at my school knew that viruses are more like crystals and are not alive.

  • Why did the Ministry of Health assume children can't handle accurate information?
  • Shouldn't the Ministry of Education (via expert teachers) have an input into 'teaching' resources from other Ministries used in our schools?


Your challenge! Explain why a virus would attach to the cell wall of this (obviously eukaryote) cell in the human blood stream.

Hint: In year 9 science we tell the students that only bacteria and plants (generally) have cell walls...animal cells DO NOT have cell walls...(same problem with the Calicivirus Year 11 exam a few years ago)

  • Who checks this material before it goes out to schools?
  • What assumptions are being made about the intelligence or thinking ability of the students watching this DVD?
  • If factually correct animations are not created as they are deemed to be at 'too high a level of understanding', why show the animation at all? The DVD still demands a certain level of understanding and comprehension...even if the material is deemed 'easier' to understand by its programmer creator...


Your challenge! Can you explain what has happened to the cell the 'viruses' have landed on? Did they eat it?

These organisms are NOT viruses because they appear to eat or consume the cell they land on.

In general, students are expected to know that a virus does very few of the MRSGREN functions that usually define living things from non-living.

  • If the animated video information has been 'dumbed down' or had 'interpretations of the truth' portrayed as fact, won't parents and students have grounds to question the reliability or accuracy of the rest of the information?


Your challenge! Can you explain how viruses make more of themselves if the video shows our first two viruses 'eating' a cell and destroying it, then moving off to attack another neighbouring cell?

Surely two little squiddy animals can't cause cancer?

  • There is plenty of evidence from education research that children can cope with accurate models of reality...depending on how the model is presented. So who at the Ministry of Health is assuming from the start that New Zealand children are stupid or too dumb to know better?
  • Is it more a case of producing slick cartoons with catchy tunes to hook the 'digital natives' with short attention spans?


In Conclusion

1. While I may be criticised for raising these important issues, as an active teacher/scientist I believe that credibility is essential if you wish to claim authority over others in the community, be they students or fellow citizens. About 50% of the school population is female...this is a signifcant figure that have watched this material as a compulsory activity. The Ministry of Health has unwittingly lost a golden opportunity to assist science educators throughout New Zealand; instead the MoH has done some damage as teachers will have to get students to 'unlearn' then 'relearn' what is actually correct.

2. I do not accept that the accurate portrayal of how HPV reproduces is any more difficult for students to see than the material on the DVD. I teach all levels of students from Year 9 to Year 13, both academic achievement standard /scholarship classes and 'non-academic' unit standard classes. A good teacher will find a way to get truthfully accurate concepts across to students, whether it is science, maths, languages, music, maori culture, etc. Would other disciplines accept half-pie information spread as 'fact''?

3. As an experienced games and graphics designer, I believe it would have been very easy to create an accurate animation that is entertaining, enlightening, and accurate.


Ministry of Health response:

Dr Greg Simmons, Ministry of Health chief adviser for population health, conceded that the issues raised were important and discussed over the phone the opportunity to remedy these errors in the next release of the DVD.

Ministry of Education response :

"Thank you for your email regarding your concerns with the accuracy of the portrayal of information relating to viruses, as provided in the MoH DVD for HPV.

Your comments have been passed to the National Assessment Facilitators responsible for the science and biology external assessments.

I appreciate the concerns you have for accuracy in information presented to schools."

Secondary Examinations Qualifications Division, New Zealand Qualifications Authority


Thanks to Dr Greg Simmons and Rhett Emery for a prompt reply to the issues raised.

'New Zealand Doctor' (April 22, 2009) raised the concerns on this website and got a written statement from Greg Simmons, who is not an expert teacher,

" that the animation is a stylised, simplified overview suitable for the audience the DVD was made for." Greg Simmons.

What makes him believe it rates as 'suitable'? Local school students in Taranaki noticed that the science was badly wrong and complained that they were being patronised and talked down to!

Is this another case of an 'expert' in one field failing to recognise they may not be an expert in other fields?

This was not 'rocket science' and could easily have been a joint project with the New Zealand Microbiology Society and the Ministry of Education to create a more ACCURATE 'stylised, simplified overview suitable for the audience the DVD was made for'.

As the DVD in question has been widely used and the 2009 NCEA science exams are yet to be asessed, I intend for this page to remain as a historical document for future reference. I will add to this page once I have seen a new DVD is indeed produced and the issues around the animation are addressed.

I have not seen any acknowledgement of the problem on any District Health Board websites that use or link to the HPV material from the Ministry of Health. The MoH material is still being promoted as the main source of legitimate scientific information from the government.

I believe all the Health Boards referring to or linking to this material have a responsibility to the public to include a comment that this material has some errors of fact. In my opinion, to ignore this issue is neither responsible or professional.

Michael Fenton 2009


Related link: Did the Ministry of Health and schools breach privacy by sharing data?


up arrow back to top  

Home | Search | About Us | Science Fair | Technical data | Microbiology | Games Design | Robotics / Electronics | e-Learning ICT | Downloads | Gifted children | Teachers resources | Courses / workshops | Publications / papers

         All rights reserved