Do we need to guard against Gardasil?

The controversial cervical cancer vaccine may carry serious health risks.

Published August 12, 2008 3:00PM (EDT)

The tagline for Gardasil, the cervical cancer vaccine, may be the grammatically incorrect "One less!" but in terms of the number of controversies it seems to be provoking (see here, here and here), perhaps the slogan should be "One more!"

The latest: A new report from the public-interest group Judicial Watch raises concerns that the vaccine may have serious side effects. The report, discussed here by the Sun-Sentinel, claims that according to the Food and Drug Administration's Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), there have been over 9,000 documented (if anecdotal) adverse responses to the vaccine since it began being administered in 2006, including miscarriages, genital warts, an autoimmune disease and death. According to the Sun-Sentinel, "Since the FDA's VAERS is known to catch perhaps 10% of adverse events at best, according to a 2004 report in the New England Journal of Medicine by the FDA, the actual numbers may be far higher."

The drug's maker, Merck, adheres to its claims that the vaccine is safe (as does the CDC). So who's right? And should people still be encouraged to get the vaccine? It seems to me that having that many reports of potential serious side effects (all filed, supposedly, by unrelated doctors) warrants further investigation into the vaccine's safety, even if the reports so far are anecdotal and don't prove a direct causal relationship. At the same time, I can't help noticing that in its description of a lawsuit it filed about the controversial drug RU-486, the self-described "conservative" Judicial Watch refers to its opponents as "radical pro-abortion activists." Even if there are legitimate concerns about Gardasil's side effects, Judicial Watch's motives in regard to girls' sexual health may not be as pure as one might hope.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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