How safe is the HPV vaccine?

D.C. Council approves mandatory vaccinations, critics raise safety concerns.

Published April 20, 2007 2:00PM (EDT)

A dispatch just in from the new HPV battlefront: The Washington Post reported that the D.C. Council has voted to approve a bill requiring young girls to receive the human papillomavirus vaccination to protect them against some forms of cervical cancer. If the mayor signs the bill into law, every girl entering sixth grade beginning in 2009 will have to prove she has received the vaccine or that her parents opted out.

At first hailed as a miraculous discovery -- the first vaccine that could prevent a form of cancer -- the HPV vaccine has been fraught with controversy from divergent groups. Social conservatives have inanely argued that the vaccine could lead to sexualizing young girls simply by affording them protection from a sexually transmitted virus. Others express concern about vaccine manufacturer Merck's unabashed willingness to lobby state legislators to push for mandatory vaccines -- potentially sidestepping public health experts, who must tend many ills with diminishing public funds. But the critics, out in full force against the recent D.C. vote, seem to question the wisdom of a mandatory vaccine solely on the basis of safety.

Groups like Parents and Citizens Committee to Stop Medical Experimentation, a loose coalition of D.C. residents, and National Vaccine Information Center, a group that has fueled the "vaccines cause autism" theory, contend that making the HPV vaccine mandatory is premature until there are more facts about side effects.

Although I've been generally heartened to read about a vaccine that could in one fell swoop protect young women from 70 percent of all cervical cancers, a couple of snippets from the Vaccine Information Center's Web site caught my eye. It claims that Merck tested the vaccine on only 1,200 girls under age 16, with some reporting temporary side effects after getting the vaccine including nausea, fever, fainting, numbness and facial paralysis. Maybe this is all within the realm of reasonable adverse reactions, but when it comes to delivering vaccinations to millions of prepubescent girls, you kinda want the studies to have focused on safety and efficacy for that population.

But perhaps it's all a matter of time, and by 2009, when D.C. girls line up for their shots, there will have been enough studies of adverse reactions and long-term effectiveness to reassure the medical skeptics. Indeed, Medical News Today reported on results from the 2007 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research that follow-up studies of two HPV vaccines (Merck's Gardasil and Cervarix by GlaxoSmithKline) show 99-100 percent effectiveness against precancerous lesions for up to 5.5 years.

So far so good, though I can understand that some parents may worry about their child becoming the canary in the cancer-prevention mine.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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