Vaccine Wars

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By Dr. Rhonda Schwartz, Director of Operations and Administration 

In the upcoming school year, my twelve-year old daughter’s pediatrician will require her to be administered with the HPV vaccine. With the recent outcry of news and scandal related to Michael Douglas’s claims that his battle with cancer stems from oral sex, the national debate over the use of current HPV vaccines has become a heated topic in the health care world.

As a concerned, caring parent, and an experienced clinician with a background in experimental medicine, I find that I am still undecided as to whether or not I want my daughter to be vaccinated. My plan, for the time being, is to read and absorb as much information as I can to help make an educated decision that will ultimately help my daughter live a healthy, normal life. The outpouring of controversy over the HPV vaccine is complexly tied to larger economic and moral issues, as well as the vaccine’s potential averse side effects. 

Since his candid announcement, actor Michael Douglas and his publicist have backtracked and attempted to clarify that the actor did not mean to incite that his particular case of HPV-related cancer was from cunnilingus. HPV-related cancers can be just as fatal as more common cancers caused by cigarette smoking and alcoholism. Treatments for HPV-related cancer can be draining and painful, and take a harsh toll on the body (cervical cancer strikes about 12,000 US women a year and kills around 4,000).  

Less than 1/3 of teenage girls in the US have completed full courses of the two HPV vaccinations – Gardasil and Cervarix – currently available to Americans. The vaccines have also been met with a large amount of skepticism from the scientific community. A recent report shows that the vaccine has caused 23,000 averse reactions, 10,000 ER visits, and a toll of 85 deaths in the US.   

On the contrary, Australia is now six years into a widely successful HPV vaccination program that has shown to protect against genital warts and cancers of the cervix, head, and neck. Research shows that cases of genital warts in females under the age of 21 dropped by 59% after two years of vaccination courses. Another benefit to this decrease is the role of “herd immunity??? in which a larger portion of a community undergoes successful immunization, severely decreasing the chances of an outbreak of the virus. In 2011, reported cases of genital warts in girls fell to less than 1%, down from 12% in 2007. 

Australia’s vaccination campaign contrasts that of the US where, studies show, parents often resist HPV vaccination, calling it unnecessary due to concerns about the vaccination’s safety and the challenge of explaining to their teenagers what the shots are for. Some parents avoid the vaccination altogether thinking that it might give their teenagers more course to be sexually promiscuous, even though a number of studies counter the notion that the vaccine alters sexual behavior.

Simply stated, Americans are torn on the issue because it involves the subject of sex and eleven-year old girls. However, doctors have recommended vaccination before a child’s first sexual encounter to assure full immunization. School districts in Washington, D.C. require middle school girls to have the vaccine, and so far Virginia is the only other state in the nation to mandate the vaccine. 

Two children have died following vaccination from a rare and accelerated form of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. But investigations have not yielded any proof that the vaccinations were the cause. Fragments of the HPV vaccine were found in the brains of two young women, both who died after being vaccinated. The women showed symptoms of inflammation linked to fatal autoimmune response, similar to those of cerebral vasculitis. Other critics of the HPV vaccine cite the theory that the vaccine can cause autism, a theory that has been debated by outspoken politicians and celebrities. 

Pharmaceutical giant Merck has used an aluminum-based placebo in its clinical trials of Gardasil. Aluminum is known to cause several different neurological reactions on its own, and may contribute to the vaccine’s averse side effects. 

Serious averse reactions to the HPV vaccines have included: death, convulsions, paralysis, seizures, myalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, facial palsy, and locomotor abnormalities. Some scientists believe that because of these averse reactions, the vaccine must be tested more thoroughly and with greater scrutiny before it is further endorsed to the public. 

As a professional working in the biotech industry, with my body of work in science and medicine, I know that there are pros and cons to weigh for and against vaccination. I try to stay optimistic and believe in the power of science and the collective medical community to continue to innovate and integrate more effective vaccines against these types of common viruses. It is direly important that people continue to collectively educate and protect themselves. Sometimes knowledge is the best medicine.