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Gardasil vaccine – good or dangerous?

“We chose to help protect ourselves against cervical cancer and other HPV diseases. Now the choice is yours.”

Recognize that line? It comes from an ad for Gardasil, the vaccine reported to offer protection against cervical cancer and Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, for women ages 11 through 26 years old. Through a massive campaign, by way of empowering commercials using the tagline above, as well as tutorials in schools, seminars for doctors and nurses, and extensive media coverage, the vaccine has been hailed the next miracle drug. Recently, however, the vaccine created by the company Merck has come under fire from many critics for various reasons ranging from simple skepticism to alarming reports claiming the shot does more harm than good.

The product was licensed for use in the US in June 2006 and is known to offer partial protection against genital warts as well as the common sexually transmitted HPV virus which can, in most cases, cause cervical cancer among women after many years. Since September, the FDA has also said that Gardasil prevents cancers in the vagina and the vulva. There are more than 40 types of HPV, four of which the Gardasil website claims to protect against, two of which cause 70 percent of cervical cancer. The deadly cancer can generally go undetected for years, and spreads to the liver, bladder, intestines, and lungs, and is estimated by the American Cancer Society to affect 11,070 women in 2008. With statistics such as these, the vaccine surfaced in society as a godsend.

According to NBC, starting next year the vaccine will be required for all girls entering the sixth grade, since it is said to work best before sexual activity. The US government will be spending $1 billion for the vaccines which comes in a 3-dose series over six months. The vaccination, which can only partially be covered by insurance, will cost $360, nearly $1,000 for some if you include other costs such as office visits and markups, according to the New York Times. Its high cost presents a problem for low-income women, as well as women with no health insurance.

Merck has also provided money to many women’s groups, lobbyists, and activists to promote its product while hundreds of doctors and nurses are being recruited to give talks about Gardasil – $4,500 a lecture. It’s also been named Brand of the Year by Pharmaceutical Executive Magazine. It was through widespread promotion such as this that pushed the Department of Homeland Security to mandate, as of Aug. 1, all young immigrant women are required to get the expensive vaccination. The mandate came as a result of a 1996 law stating all immigrants are required to get any vaccination recommended by the US, according to the Wall Street Journal. However, these actions have many critics wondering why everyone is jumping on the bandwagon when the product itself is still under scrutiny by those in the medical community – and for many reasons.

In an editorial by the New England Journal of Medicine, one of many concerns is the fact that the vaccination has only gone through clinical studies of five years – a short life span considering cervical cancer takes an average 10 years to develop. Charlotte J. Huang, M.D., writes, “the real impact of HPV vaccination on cervical cancer will not be observable for decades.” Critics are also wondering how the vaccine will affect natural immunity to the cancer as well as the screening of women for HPV. If women continue to get the vaccination, will many find it unnecessary to continue screening for other strains of HPV? Huang maintains that, “with so many essential questions still unanswered, there is good reason to be cautious about introducing large-scale vaccination.”

Gardasil has also come under fire for its numerous side effects which include nausea, dizziness, swelling, mild to moderate fever, and even seizures. Mike Adams wrote a report for the Natural News stating that Gardasil actually increases cervical lesions by 44.6 percent amongst women. Adams also maintains that the entire campaign is a hoax, citing FDA documents as evidence that, in fact, HPV is not even associated with cervical cancer, and hasn’t been since 2003. In the FDA document cited by Adams, which came out in 2007 as a Reclassification Petition, Sin Han Lee, president of the HiFi DNA Tech, reports that since 2003, “the scientific staff of the FDA no longer considers HPV infection to be a high-risk disease,” and that “most infections by HPV are short-lived and not associated with cervical cancer.”

If this is true, why do so many doctors continue to promote the vaccination? Nurses from Planned Parenthood, Kaiser Permanente, and the Tang Center, when asked, all read the reported facts from a spread sheet provided and wouldn’t comment on any of the controversial claims made in the media. Tang’s advice nurse maintained that, “It’s a really good vaccine and I would get as much information on it as possible,” while Martha, the advice nurse at Kaiser, took an agreeable approach: “The patient can make an educated decision for herself.”

In the end, it’s up to ourselves to decide whether we want to take a vaccine that could be at once preventative or useless, harmful or life-saving.