Gardasil: Risks and Benefits

At what point can consumers make an informed decision about the risks and benefits of new vaccines that appear on the market? Advertising campaigns and drug manufacturers have a financial interest at their very core to getting the medical industry and the general public to believe that the new vaccine will prevent diseases, increasing demand for their product. They also have the moral incentive that putting out a vaccine will save the general population from such disease. Such is the case with Gardasil, the HPV or human papillomavirus vaccine.
Cervical cancer, once a leading cause of early death in women, has been associated with the human papillomavirus. If HPV infections can be prevented, then cervical cancers associated with the infection are less likely to occur. Although the virus itself is not particularly harmful, if the HPV infection is not cleared from the body (as it is in most cases), then cervical precancerous lesions may develop, and these lead eventually to cervical cancer. It follows then, that if we are able to prevent HPV infections we can also prevent cervical cancer. The benefits seem to be fairly straightforward. But things are never quite that simple.
The fact remains that since 1955, when women began to be routinely screened for cervical cancers through pap smears, cervical cancer rates have seen a steady decline. Screening for the cancer has proven to be very effective. Changes in the cervix are caught early, often in pre-cancerous stages and early treatments are increasingly effective. Therefore the risks of actually developing cervical cancer are steadily declining. Plainly stated, the risk of acquiring cervical cancer is just not what it once was.
Along comes a vaccine that prevents a virus that can lead to cancer and it sounds like a fairly good proposition on the surface. But researchers point out that the long term effectiveness of the vaccine cannot truly be known for another 20 to 40 years when cancer rates for those given the vaccine can be studied and evaluated. In other words, we can’t really know how effective the drug is for another 20 to 40 years.
Adding to the complexity of the issue is the fact that there are more than 100 different strains of HPV, 15 of which have been associated with the development of cancer. The current HPV vaccine targets only two of these known strains. Regardless of whether or not they are given the vaccine, women are still at risk of developing cervical cancer through HPV infection. It is impossible to know why an HPV infection will lead to cancer in one woman and not in another. It is also impossible to wholly eliminate cervical cancer risks because the vaccine only protects patients from 2 of the 15 strains of the virus. If women who have been vaccinated become casual about cervical cancer screening (pap smears), believing that they are safe from all of the virus strains, they actually increase their risk of incurring cancer due to exposure to the other 13 strains of the virus. The vaccine may actually give women a false sense of security about their overall cancer risks. If that is the case, then the vaccination of a generation of young women will prove to be a miserable failure.
While the risks of adverse side effects to the vaccine itself are relatively small, there have been disturbing reports of physical and neurological side effects associated with the vaccine. These side effects include fainting spells, seizures, weight loss, abdominal pain and vomitting, inflammation of internal organs, blurred vision, headaches, vertigo, paralysis and even sudden cardiac arrest, and death. It has been next to impossible for patients who experience such extreme side effects to find a connection between these debilitating disorders and the vaccine. Perhaps none exist, but that is little comfort to parents and the young women who have experienced these devastating symptoms while undergoing the vaccination regimen.
In weighing the risks and benefits, it does seem that more study and research should be required before pushing an entire generation of young women, many who are not sexually active, to get a regimen of vaccinations whose effectiveness remains to be seen, to prevent a cancer that is routinely caught in the early stages of development anway, and is highly treatable. The benefits begin to be questionable indeed.