A "sex jab" didn't kill Natalie Morton

A British teen's death sparks debate over a controversial vaccine - but the alternative is worse

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 1, 2009 5:02PM (EDT)

On Monday morning, 14-year-old Natalie Morton went to her school in Coventry, England. There, as part of a National Health Service program, she received a dose of Cervarix. The drug was approved two years ago for the prevention of the human papillomavirus: the virus that causes roughly 70% of all cervical cancers.

A few hours later, Natalie was dead.

It didn’t take long for the British press, never prized for its taste or restraint, to seize upon the story of “tragic Natalie’s” “cervical cancer jab,” and for the NHS Trust to suspend the voluntary vaccination program. The idea that your kid could go to school, get a government issued shot, and then drop dead is horrifying. The UK Guardian called it “every parent’s nightmare.”

As it turns out, the cause of Morton’s death was likely a pre-existing tumor,  and the HPV vaccination program will resume in the UK on Monday. But  Morton's death has kicked-up a new round of concerns about the vaccine.

In this country, the HPV vaccine of choice is Gardasil, which also prevents the virus that causes genital warts. Gardasil, which went on the market in 2006, has been controversial since its inception because of fears of side effects.

In the August Journal of the American Medical Association, a report that declared the vaccine “safe” also confirmed potential side effects including fainting, blood clots, and dizziness. It also reported “12,000 reports of adverse events after vaccination,” including “772 [which] were described as serious, including 32 deaths.”

Given that there were 23 million vaccinations given in Gardasil’s first two years on the market, you’d think those were pretty good odds. But numbers don’t mean anything when it’s your own daughter.

Every time I take my kids for a vaccine, I consider what’s going into their bodies. I spaced their vaccinations individually rather than front loading my kids for convenience. I debated long and hard this year about flu shots, which I usually consider optional and eschew. And it’s not like drug corporations have done a lot to inspire implicit trust, like the way Gardasil’s manufacturer Merck has been aggressively lobbing to mandate the HPV vaccine for schoolgirls.

Still, I like to dream that by the time my daughters are old enough to receive the vaccine, my government will be an active enough participant in the health of its young citizens that it, like the UK, will provide it on a voluntary basis. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. And I’m firm about my daughters getting it. I’ve seen the alternative.

Like an astonishing eighty percent of all sexually active women, I’ve had HPV. I have no idea when or from whom I ever got it. I only found out I’d ever had when, a few weeks after a routine checkup, my doctor called to tell me I needed to come in for some tests. A few weeks after that, I had a precancerous, pea-sized portion of my cervix removed. I still have a standing date with my doctor every few months to make sure I don’t have cancer.

I spent my life getting regular paps and never knew that cervical cancer was almost always the result of a sexually transmitted virus. No idea! When I found out I had HPV, and that whoops, it might turn into cancer, I felt ashamed. Felt I had brought it on myself, what with being an adult and having had sex, ever. I thought I was more evolved and emancipated, but when I got the diagnosis, my first thought was that I was being punished for my colorful exploits. A virus in your cervix can do that to you.

That’s why, in addition to the fear of side effects, the HPV vaccination often comes with a dose of hand-wringing over sexuality. When it was introduced in England, Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, said: "It's basically a sex jab, encouraging the view that girls can be sexually available. It is a disease that you can only get through being sexually promiscuous.” And just this spring, the Washington Post reiterated that finger-wagging suggestion that prevention leads to wantonness by noting “Critics worried that vaccinating children would send a subtle signal that their parents assumed they would become sexually active.”  

It’s the same brand of idiocy that leads to abstinence only programs. No duh -- kids will become sexually active. Mine will too. It’s called growing up. I’d rather that when they embark upon womanhood, my daughters do with one less potential sexual stigma hanging over their heads.

Because of advances in early detection, cervical cancer rates have been declining steadily over the last few years. Nevertheless cervical cancer remains the second biggest cause of cancer deaths among women worldwide. Over 11,000 new cases are diagnosed every year in the US, and over 4,000 women die of it. I don’t want to be one of them. And I won’t let my daughters be in that number.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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