B.C.’s health officer insists HPV vaccine Gardasil is safe

B.C.’s health officer is standing by Gardasil, the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine used to protect against cervical cancer, amid mounting public concern over its safety.

Today,  the U.S. media was awash in headlines about the vaccine being accused of causing paralysis. Merck & Co., the maker of the vaccine, has been named in two lawsuits alleging the shot caused paralysis in two teen girls aged 15 and 13. A third teen, 13-year-old Jenny Tetlock, has come forward accusing the vaccine of causing almost complete paralysis.

"I would presume what they’re talking about is a condition called Guillain Barré Syndrome," Perry Kendall, the provincial health officer, told the Straight. Guillain Barré is an autoimmune disorder causing paralysis, which can be triggered by viral infections and occurs at a rate of about one in 100,000 people, he explained.

(Most people afflicted with paralysis as a result of Guillan Barré recover within a year, and for about 30 percent of those afflicted, weakness may persist for up to three years, according to the National Institutes for Health. In very rare cases, death or permanent paralysis occurs.)

"Does the vaccine [Gardasil] cause more Guillain Barré Syndrome in people who get the vaccine than people who don’t get the vaccine?...It doesn’t look like there’s any increased risk for Guillain Barré Syndrome following HPV vaccine, and many millions of doses have been delivered," he said.

"In the United States, if somebody got Guillain Barré syndrome within weeks of receiving an HPV vaccine, is it likely that they’d sue for damages? Yes."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more than 12 million doses of the vaccine have been distributed in the U.S. since 2006. The CDC released figures last month stating that its Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) had received 7,802 reports of adverse events associated with the vaccine from June 8, 2006, to April 30, 2008.

It received 31 reports of Guillain Barré Syndrome after Gardasil vaccination between June 8, 2006, and April 30, 2008. Ten of these reports were confirmed, five of which reported vaccinating with Menactra (for meningococcal disease) and Gardasil at the same time.

The CDC received reports of 15 deaths following Gardasil vaccination; 10 of the reports contained enough information required for further investigation, and the VAERS determined that it could not establish a causal link between vaccination and death.

The CDC also reported that less than seven percent of adverse Gardasil effects reported to the VAERS were for serious side effects, half the average for vaccines overall.

In May, B.C. Health Minister George Abbott announced that girls entering grades 6 and 9 this fall will be offered the Gardasil vaccine, which prevents infection of two types of HPV, responsible for about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases.