In June of 2006, the world’s first cervical cancer vaccine, Gardasil, was released worldwide and called “a public health breakthrough” by the American Medical Association. Now, more than three years later, federal researchers must analyze more than 12,000 post-vaccination complaints, which range from minor headaches to death.
Gardasil, a series of three shots, protects against two strains of the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes 70 percent of cervical-cancer cases. It has been recommended for girls as young as the age of nine, but offered up until the age of twenty-six.
The official Gardasil website states, “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have reviewed all the safety information available to them. Based on data available to them as of May 2009, the CDC and FDA determined that GARDASIL continues to be safe and effective, and its benefits continue to outweigh its risks. In August 2009, the CDC reaffirmed its continued recommendation for vaccination with GARDASIL.”
Online, the number of opponents of Gardasil (mostly mothers whose daughters have received the vaccine) is rapidly growing. Horror stories of the most extreme side effects possible are used in the hope of dissuading undecided individuals from getting the vaccine.
Jodi Speakman, a mother in northern Philadelphia, claims to support Gardasil and the effort researchers are putting into informing individuals of the risks involved in receiving the vaccine; however, she thinks more research is necessary before more girls request the vaccine.
Speakman’s daughter, Victoria Ventimiglia, 18, developed a host of life-threatening symptoms after her second injection of Gardasil, including non-epileptic seizures, migraines, diarrhea, tremors, and numbness.
The growing number of reports pertaining to the adverse effects of Gardasil has frightened many parents- especially since the vaccine is becoming a requirement in numerous situations across the country. Some states have mandated the vaccine before girls enter middle school, and female immigrants from the ages 11 to 26 are required by law to receive the vaccination as a pre-condition for citizenship.
It has been estimated that Gardasil causes 400 percent more adverse effects than other comparable vaccines.
Numerous girls at Leesville have experienced firsthand the unpleasant effects of the vaccine.
Allison Werk, junior, passed out shortly after the second of the three shots. “Other than a sore arm, I was fine right after getting the shot,” said Werk, “When my mom and I were standing up to leave the doctor’s, I got really really dizzy all of a sudden, and passed out. I had to stay at the doctor’s for almost another hour so they could make sure I was okay.” Werk has not decided whether she wants the final injection of Gardasil.
Layla Shayesteh, junior, had an entirely different reaction to the shots. “I was okay until a few hours after getting the shot, but then I started feeling weird. I was nauseous and dizzy, and felt like I was getting sick. I had a fever for a few hours. I was fine the next day, but having to go back to school and take tests and stuff the day of the shot wasn’t best,” said Shayesteh.
Parents, physicians, and researchers are now asking now is whether the risks associated with the vaccine are worth the long term benefits. The theory behind the vaccine is logical: if an HPV infection can be prevented, so can cancer. The problem, however, comes from the fact that most individuals receiving the vaccination are unaware of what they hope to be protected from.
Gardasil only partly protects the individual receiving the vaccine from certain strains of HPV. Of the 100 different strains of HPV, the vaccine only protects against two varieties. In addition, there have been no long term studies indicating that Gardasil actually helps prevent cervical cancer. Cervical cancer usually appears twenty to forty years after exposure to HPV, and Gardasil has only been available for three years.
The young age range Gardasil has been recommended for has also been disputed and argued among parents and doctors. While doctors and the developers of Gardasil stand firm in their belief that the ideal time for a girl’s vaccination is before she become sexually active and may be exposed to the virus.
Despite the controversy Gardasil has caused, the FDA Advisory Panel recently recommended approving the vaccine for men and boys ages nine to twenty-six. While the FDA often follows the Advisory Panel’s recommendations, it is not required to.
Gardasil may be more effective for men and boys than women and girls: Participants in a study of the effectiveness of the vaccine got a total of three shots of Gardasil or a placebo spread over six months. They also got checkups and tests to check for HPV infection.
It was concluded that the vaccine was 89 percent effective, with few side effects and very little reaction in most cases.
Before Gardasil is mandated for men, women, boys, and girls, Dr. Diane Harper, one of the doctors who tested Gardasil in stages II and III of the study, recommends that families do the research and be aware of the potential risks and benefits of the vaccine.
Harper says that there is no need to routinely vaccination eleven year olds, because the vaccination itself is only effective for five years. Unless the vaccine was effective for fifteen years, she says there are no real benefits.
” If we vaccinate 11-year-olds and the protection doesn’t last… we’ve put them at harm from side effects, small but real, for no benefit. The benefit to public health is nothing, there is no reduction in cervical cancers, they are just postponed, unless the protection lasts for at least 15 years, and over 70 percent of all sexually active females of all ages are vaccinated,” said Harper.
When Allison Werk and Layla Shayesteh were asked if they were glad they got the vaccine and if they recommended it, the responses were very different.
“I’m glad I got it. Being sick for a day is worth preventing cancer in the long run,” said Shayesteh. “ I wish there weren’t so many negative side effects and that there was a way for doctors to make Gardasil more safe and effective, but the benefits will outweigh the side effects in most cases.”
“I wish I had waited and let doctors do more research before getting the Gardasil shots. I know preventing cancer and HPV are important, but since the vaccine has only been around for a few years, they can’t know the long-term risks associated with it. I want to tell anyone thinking about getting Gardasil to be sure they do research and talk to your doctor about it first,” said Werk.