Notes on the HPV Vaccine

Steven Mosher
By Joseph A. D'Agostino
PRI Weekly Briefing
9 March 2007
Vol. 9, No. 10
Reproduced with Permission

The efforts to force all American girls to receive a new, unnecessary vaccine with unknown long-term side effects seem to have lost much of their momentum for now. Merck has dropped its campaign to convince states to mandate the vaccine for sixth-grade girls before they can enter school, and strong public resistance has appeared in many states. This curious episode in the history of American public health is likely to be repeated many times over the next decade or two as the health profession grapples with the ever-rising rates of sexually transmitted disease in this country.

Some states are still moving forward with mandatory plans, but generally with allowing parents to opt out of the vaccination program. Even Canada's provinces have so far decided not to distribute the vaccine at government expense.

Forty-five years ago, only two sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) were known to have firm footholds in the American population, and they were largely confined to high-risk populations such as prostitutes and sailors. Today, there are at least 26.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of those and is very widespread among sexually active girls and women. Scientists think that the four strains (there are others) of HPV included in Merck's vaccine cause 70% of cervical cancer cases and 90% of the genital warts in the United States. So what's the problem with giving this vaccine to girls?

First, it implicitly normalizes the abnormal state of modern girls' self-destructive sexual practices. It says that girls as young as 11 could be sleeping around and must receive this vaccine, called Gardasil, for protection. Rather than spend hundreds of millions on injecting everyone with this HPV vaccine, a better strategy would be to tackle the culture of promiscuity instead, especially since Gardasil will do nothing to combat all the other dangerous STDs girls and women can catch.

Second, like most medical treatments, Gardasil has side effects. National Vaccine Information Center analyst Vicky Debold, RN, Ph.D., says, "The most frequent serious health events after Gardasil shots are neurological symptoms. These young girls are experiencing severe headaches, dizziness, temporary loss of vision, slurred speech, fainting, involuntary contraction of limbs, muscle weakness, tingling and numbness in the hands and feet and joint pain. Some of the girls have lost consciousness during what appear to be seizures." NVIC says that 82 adverse event reports have been filed between July 2006 and January 2007 for Gardasil, suggesting that serious side effects are rare but hardly unheard of.

Third, no one knows what long-term ill effects Gardasil could cause. It is simply too new, and untried in a large population.

The most curious thing about Gardasil was the attempt to force it on 11- and 12-year-old girls across the country. Why was something so new, so relatively untested, with unknown long-term effects so quickly adopted as mandatory by some such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R.)? Virginia's Gov. Tim Kaine (D.) is also considering mandating it. Both states will allow for parents to opt their children out.

Obviously, there are the lobbyist connections and campaign cash drug companies have. But there is a more fundamental problem: The assumption that youth sexual promiscuity is here to stay and fierce measures must be taken to combat the resulting diseases, and caution cannot be afforded when a promising new treatment comes along. Would that such energy be directed at keeping pornography away from minors or high school students of opposite sexes away from each other when not chaperoned. These measures would combat all STDs at once and reduce teen pregnancy as well.

It might make sense for parents who believe their girls are at high risk of sexual activity to give their daughters the vaccine, and for girls and young women who intend to sleep around to take it (hopefully, at later ages than 12). Then ten or so years down the road, after the vaccine's effects are better known, perhaps the health profession might encourage - not mandate - more widespread use of the vaccine.

But this cautious, common-sense course was not pursued. Instead, the top-down heavy hand came into play immediately. This attitude of our political class and medical establishment does not bode well for future efforts to combat the rising tide of sexual infections among American youth.