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Gardasil: Miracle vaccine? Part 1 of 2

October 13, 2008

The focus of my next two articles will be on the controversial human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine. Since it first hit the market, Gardasil has been both heavily praised and heavily criticized: concerns over its use and efficacy as well as the advertising tactics used and the motivations of the pharmaceutical giant Merck have plagued the introduction of the first-ever cancer vaccine. In the past year, several provinces across Canada have suggested its use among school-age girls, prompting controversy surrounding its safety and effectiveness as well as harsh reactions from parents worried that being vaccinated could encourage early sexual activity. Most recently a U.S. Department of Homeland Security policy requiring the vaccination of immigrant women has sparked extreme reactions from many public health, immigrant rights, and women’s health groups.

This first article will give a brief history of the vaccine and the debates surrounding it, while the second will focus on the specific policies of Canada and the U.S.

According to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, HPV is the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection in the country, with over 550,000 affected each year. While most people never experience symptoms, a few strains of HPV can lead to cervical cancer in women if left untreated. Gardasil protects against four of the over 100 strains of HPV: HPV 16 and 18, which can cause cervical cancer, and HPV 6 and 11, which can cause genital warts. If used on a wide scale, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts a 22 percent to 60 percent reduction in cervical cancer. It is being targeted for girls and women age 9-26, and comes in a series of three vaccinations, totaling approximately $400.

Since its approval, Gardasil has been hailed by health departments and experienced a remarkably fast move to the top of the policy agenda. Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization has recommended vaccination for all girls age 9-13, and in March 2007 the federal government announced a $300 million program to prevent cervical cancer. Gardasil is now being offered free to school-age girls in Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador, and most recently British Columbia. Yet despite its promised results, so far rates of use have been surprisingly low: in Ontario only 53% of those eligible are receiving the vaccination, and a reported 10% of women in the United States have taken part. Reservations about the vaccine primarily come from distrust of such a new reproductive health technology, the high price of the vaccine, and concerns about its effectiveness and safety.

Beyond medical concerns, many reproductive health organizations are concerned with the often-biased media attention and prominent ad campaigns promoting the vaccine. Critics argue that Merck’s “One Less” campaign exaggerates women’s actual risk for cervical cancer, making it seem as though it affects epidemic proportions rather than a small percentage of the population. The Canadian Women’s Health Network (CWHN) webpage on Gardasil states: “the ads may generate excessive fear by obscuring the fact that cervical cancer affects a relatively small number of women and is rarely fatal in [North America].”

Additionally Merck’s close relationship with many of the groups that helped to push for mandatory vaccination programs for school-age girls, such as the non-profit Women in Government in the U.S., have lead to questions about the pharma giants’ motives: critics see the company as simply chasing profits rather than truly thinking about women’s best interests.

CWHN and other women’s rights advocates argue that public health information and policies needs to be in women’s hands rather than at the whim of pharmaceutical companies, advertising campaigns, and media rhetoric about the newest magical solution, and that anything less threatens the progress made by the women’s reproductive rights movement.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 29, 2009 9:33 pm

    Vaccines are POISON. The only one[s] who benefit from vaccines are PHARMACEUTICALS. Lots of Vitamin D will protect you from the flu and many other diseases. DON’T be fooled by paid off media hype. STOP the sickening assault on humanity.

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