The HPV Vaccine Mandatory
Is Bad Medicine
By Lucinda Marshall
09 February, 2007
Rick Perry’s decision to sidestep the Texas legislature and issue
an executive order mandating that girls entering the 6th grade receive
the new HPV vaccine raises troubling questions about the influence pharmaceutical
companies wield on the crafting of public health policy. Cervical cancer
is only expected to cause 3670 deaths in the U.S. in 2007, a miniscule
percentage (less than 2%) of the 270,000 deaths from the disease worldwide
and only 1% of the total annual number of deaths from all cancers in
the United States.
While cervical cancer used
to be one of the deadliest diseases for women in the U.S., the number
of deaths it causes has dropped dramatically (by 74% from 1955-1992)
and it continues to drop). Why then are so many states considering mandating
a vaccine that costs $300 - $500 per patient for a type of cancer that
is already largely under control in this country and which can be almost
entirely prevented by regular gynecological checkups and Pap smears?
Merck & Co., the giant
pharmaceutical company that makes the vaccine Gardasil, is spending
millions of dollars lobbying state legislators. In Texas, where Merck
recently doubled its lobbying efforts, Gov. Perry received $6000 from
Merck’s political action committee during his last campaign. One
of Merck’s key lobbyists in Texas is Perry’s former chief-of-staff
and the mother-in-law of his current chief-of-staff is the state director
of Women in Government, a national advocacy group of female state legislators
that has received substantial funds from Merck.
It is important to note that
low income women and women who do not have health insurance are most
at risk because they are less likely to get regular Pap smears. More
than half of the diagnosed cases of cervical cancer are in women who
have not had a Pap smear in three years. While Gov. Perry has mandated
that the state of Texas foot the bill for those who can’t afford
the expensive HPV vaccine, it is unclear where those funds would come
from either in Texas or in other states that are considering making
the vaccine mandatory. And obviously the cost of the vaccine makes it
prohibitive in the countries where it is most needed and would potentially
do the most good.
What is clear is that Merck
has a substantial financial interest in the vaccine becoming mandatory
even though the added benefit to public health is both minimal and costly.
With more than 10 million girls in the U.S. between the ages of 10-14,
the drug company stands to make billions of dollars preventing a disease
that is already treatable in the targeted population. Since the vaccine
does not eliminate the need for regular Pap smears, it would appear
that a far more appropriate and cost effective first step would be to
make regular gynecological healthcare available for all women regardless
of income and medical insurance, particularly since this step by itself
would go a long way in reducing the few cases of cervical cancer that
still occur in this country.
There is however another
significant public health concern in regards to the HPV vaccine, namely
that it is a very new drug with no history. We are of course being told
that it is perfectly safe and has few side effects, but we were also
told that about Thalidomide, DES and Hormone Replacement Therapy. Negative
health concerns have also been raised about other children’s vaccines
and the Anthrax vaccine given to those in the armed forces as well as
drugs like Vioxx, another Merck drug.
While Merck says that Gardasil
is 100% effective in preventing the two types of the HPV virus that
cause 70% of all cervical cancer, questions have arisen about these
results. In an article in Healthfacts, Maryann Napoli, associate director
of the Center for Medical Consumers reports that according to Barbara
Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center and
a former member of the FDA Vaccines and Related Biologic Products Advisory
Committee, the placebos in Merck’s studies contained aluminum
(which is reported to cause inflammation and cell death in animals and
humans) rather than saline solution, which according to Fisher “violates
the principle of scientific method…making it hard to tell whether
the many adverse events reported were due to the use of aluminum in
both the placebo and the drug or to the Gardasil itself.
And in an essay published
in the New York Times in July, 2006, Roni Rabin points out that most
of the subjects in the Merck trials were women over the age of 16. Rabin
found that the vaccine was only tested on 1200 girls under the age of
16. In addition, the vaccine is so new that it is not yet known for
how long it will be effective or whether a booster will be required.
It is also important to note that Merck’s own literature states
that Gardasil, “has not been evaluated for the potential to cause
carcinogenicity or genotoxicity.”
It is not that guarding against
HPV is not a good idea, in theory of course it is a great idea, but
a healthy dose of skepticism is appropriate when it comes to believing
the promises or stated motives of pharmaceutical companies. It seems
unconscionable to mandate the use of a vaccine that has the potential
to put the lives and health of an entire generation of girls at risk
for the sake of preventing a cancer that is a risk to so few young women
in this country and which can already be prevented by other less risky
“A New Vaccine for
Girls, but Should It Be Compulsory” by Roni Rabin, New York Times,
July 18, 2006.
Vaccination Against Cervical Cancer in the United States: The Need and
the Means”, Guttmacher Policy Review, Fall, 2006, Volume 9, Number
Woman to Woman gives Gardasil
guarded reviews”. www.womentowomen.com.
“Merck lobbies states
over cancer vaccine” by Liz Austin Peterson, in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,
January 20, 2007.
“New cervical cancer
vaccine should not be mandatory” by Maryann Napoli, Healthfacts,
Lucinda Marshall is a feminist
artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace
Network, www.feministpeacenetwork.org. Her work has been published in
numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad including, Counterpunch,
Alternet, Dissident Voice, Off Our Backs, The Progressive, Countercurrents,
Z Magazine , Common Dreams, In These Times and Information Clearinghouse.
She blogs at WIMN Online and Sheroes.
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