Here in Virginia, health officials are pushing the vaccine that protects against HPV. As the Washington Post reports, the Commonwealth wants Gardasil administered to every girl entering the 6th grade. Parents here can opt out simply by refusing to give their girls the shot.
But fears of adverse affects still abound. This month, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that in the 2.5 years between June 2006 and December 2008, there were
12,424 reports of side effects, or 54 reports per 100,000 doses given. That included 32 reports of death, or 1 per 1 million girls vaccinated, though it’s unclear whether the vaccine or something else was to blame.
An NPR report also stated that we’re not sure how many of those deaths were due to preexisting conditions in the teen girls, such as blood clots:
All of these people had a known risk factor for having blood clots. Most commonly was that they were on some sort of estrogen birth control. But obesity, traveling, immobility and some of these people had genetic risk factors for getting – for having blood clots, as well.
So…we’re blaming the girls for their deaths? For their previously unknown medical conditions? Not only are we as yet uncertain of Gardasil’s safety, we also have no clue about its efficacy, especially long-term.
They point out that only systematic, prospective, controlled studies will be able to distinguish the true harmful effects of the HPV vaccine. These limitations work both ways: it is also difficult to conclude that a serious event is not caused by the vaccine.
After some of these adverse effects, the FDA recently ordered that the manufacturer of Gardasil, Merck, must now add a few more warnings to its labeling, including:
fainting, tonic-clonic (jerking) movements, and “seizure-like” reactions.
Dr. Charlotte Haug, writing an editorial for JAMA this month, points out a few other problems with HPV vaccines overall.
- There are over 100 different types of HPV. Yes, HPV is the most common STD, at an estimated 79% over a lifetime. Most of these go undiagnosed and many clear up from our own immunity. Women get annual Pap smears to check for precancerous cells associated with cervical cancer. Nearly all cases of cervical cancer (and some cases of penile cancer) are caused by HPV.
- Gardasil and other HPV vaccines operate under the theory that if the STD spread can be prevented, so can cervical cancer.
- There are over 11,000 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed each year and 4,070 deaths.
- Gardasil only protects against two types of HPV, responsible for about 60% of cervical cancer cases. Approximately 15 of the 100 types of HPV are cancer-causing.
- Before Gardasil was approved by the FDA, drugmaker Merck tested about 2,500 with the vaccine and followed up one month and again 3 years later to check the incidence of cervical cancer and HPV infection. The girls and women tested were between 16 and 23 years old and with a lifetime history of sexual partners bewteen 0-4. Gardasil was 100% effective against cervical disease and had a maximum efficacy of 34% when it came to “lesions”.
- HPV vaccines are recommended for girls as young as 9 and has only been tested on a few hundred 11- and 12year-olds. And we’re not sure about long-term efficacy, as Dr. Haug states in her editorial:
In a few women, [HPV] infection persists and some women may develop precancerous cervical lesions and eventually cervical cancer. It is currently impossible to predict in which women this will occur and why. Likewise, it is impossible to predict exactly what effect vaccination of young girls and women will have on the incidence of cervical cancer 20 to 40 years from now. The true effect of the vaccine can be determined only through clinical trials and long-term follow-up.
It’s on the Recommended Immunization Schedule for girls aged 7-18, and drugmaker Merck is hoping that the FDA will soon approve it for boys. After all, we’ve already got parents circumcising boys over the fear of penile cancer. Why not add a vaccine to the mix?
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