HPV Vaccine Also Stirs Controversy

December 16, 2010

By Elise Chretien and Saquoia Freeman
VCU Multimedia Journalism Masters Program

RICHMOND, Va. — Another vaccine generating controversy is Gardasil, which is designed to prevent the spread of a virus that causes cervical and other cancers.

Gardasil helps protect against the human papillomavirus, which experts estimate will affect 75-80 percent of all males and females during their lifetime. HPV can cause genital warts in both sexes – and cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer in females.

Merck, the company that makes Gardasil, recommends it for females and males ages 9 to 26. The vaccine is administered in a series of three shots over six months.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that all girls receive the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12.

In 2007, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law requiring all sixth-grade girls to get the HPV vaccine. The law took effect in 2008.

Because Gardasil is a relatively new vaccine, some critics question whether it has been adequately tested – and how safe it is. They can find anecdotal support for their skepticism about Gardasil in the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System database.

Gardasil has been administered millions of times since it was introduced in 2006. Since then, the VAERS has received more than 18,000 reports of patients having negative side effects. These side effects included shooting muscle pain, fainting, dizziness, seizures and severe flu-like symptoms.

In 60 cases – including one in Virginia – a patient died after receiving the HPV vaccine, according to an analysis of the VAERS data. It is unclear whether these deaths were the direct result of the vaccine.

For example, a 21-year-old woman from Maryland received her third and final dose of the HPV vaccine on June 3, 2008, one report said. On June 22 of that year, she was found dead in her dorm room at an out-of-state college.

State Delegate Kathy Byron, R-Lynchburg, has proposed repealing the Virginia law requiring sixth-grade girls to receive the HPV vaccine.

If the law is repealed, the vaccine would be optional for students. On her website, Byron said her bill would not prevent children from receiving the vaccine if their parents want them to get it.

Here is a spreadsheet with a summary of HPV-vaccine-related incidents contained in the VAERS database. The spreadsheet also lists the reports in which someone may have died after receiving the HPV vaccine.

Opinions from the Community

Jyness Williams, 19, student at the College of William and Mary: “I would recommend that girls considering getting the vaccine or not should ask their doctor first if it is OK.”

Tatia Granger, 43, wife and mother of two girls, Williamsburg: “I’m still thinking about whether or not my daughter should get the HPV vaccine. Since the vaccine is so new, I would really have to think about it.”

Main story: The flu vaccine