Erin Brockovich’s Bad HPV Science

–Lauren Ruhland, 2008 MCPP intern

I’m not an expert on health issues, but among the biggest projects of my academic career was a research presentation on advancements in the treatment of cervical cancer, the culmination of countless hours of research during my final semester.  In particular, my project focused on new vaccine technologies that promise protection against human papillomavirus (HPV).  HPV is a common (and incurable) STD that causes virtually all cancers of the uterine cervix.  Gardasil was the first vaccine against the disease approved by the FDA.

As with any new medical technology, there are risks to consider before getting vaccinated (or choosing to vaccinate your child.)  If it were up to Erin Brockovich, though, you wouldn’t even have to make that decision.  No, she doesn’t want to make HPV vaccines mandatory– though many state legislatures have tried to do effectively that.  Instead, Brockovich siezes on reports of a few tragic deaths that have occurred after vaccination and concludes that Gardasil manufacturer Merck is killing young girls in the pursuit of profits.

I’m taking her blog post on point-by-point, here.  It’s pretty long, so consider yourself warned.

Gardasil, as you should know by now, is an HPV vaccine sold by Merc(sic), a vaccine with a flawed marketing campaign targeting young girls.  The premise is that the vaccine will protect young girls from cervical cancer, as well as a couple of varieties of HPV.

The vaccine prevents infection with four varieties of HPV– two are associated with cervical cancer, while the other two are associated with genital warts, an unpleasant but not deadly disease.  Though there are many risk factors for cervical cancer, like tobacco use and family history, these factors are not sufficient on their own to cause the disease.  Upwards of 99% of cervical cancers are directly associated with HPV infection, though most women with HPV won’t ever get cancer.

Since young women are the most likely to be infected with HPV and the benefits of vaccination greatest for females, that’s where Merck chose to focus its research.  Because the research was conducted among this age group, the FDA has only approved the vaccine for girls and women between the ages of 11 and 27.

But the vaccine is NOT a cancer preventative, and it has not been thoroughly tested.

A search in the archives of any large medical journal will produce papers on dozens of HPV vaccine trials, both in the United States and abroad.  (Though easily treatable in industrial nations, cervical cancer is the deadliest cancer among women in the developing world.)  In clinical tests of the complete vaccine, there was a 98-100% success rate in preventing new infection among the experimental group.  One of the final trials in the U.S. was halted when researchers decided that failing to provide the vaccine to the placebo group constituted an violation of medical ethics.

Not only does Gardasil not protect everyone, it does not prevent all types of cervical cancer. According to current science, there are fifteen types of HPV associated with cervical cancer but Gardasil only counters HPV types 16 and 18.

Nobody has ever claimed that Gardasil protects everyone– it has only been approved by the FDA for use in girls and women between the ages of 11 and 26, and it does a very good job of protecting them.

Brockovich is right about the variety of HPV strains that cause cancer, but “current science” also says that strains HPV-16 and HPV-18 are associated with more than 70% of all cervical cancers.  In other words, 7,700 of the 11,070 women to be diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in the U.S. alone are infected with one of these two strains.  But many strains of the virus have a lot in common on the molecular level, and there’s evidence that antibodies generated by the vaccine will also fight ten other strains of the virus that cause an additional 20% of cervical cancers worldwide.

The vaccine requires three doses to start and scientists don’t even know how frequently boosters will be needed. They don’t know because they did not adequately research this before putting the vaccine out on the market using our young girls as guinea pigs.

Many vaccines require multiple doses to start out with, so pairing this with the criticism that researchers “don’t even know” about the vaccine’s long-term protection is bizarre.  The researchers who developed the vaccine weren’t able to vaccinate young women and observe them throughout the course of their lives to watch for potential vaccine problems.  Nobody

Merc(sic) was even pushing to have this untried vaccine REQUIRED by states. Governer Perry of Texas–who bypassed the state legislation with an executive order–has ties to Merck. Mike Toomey, Perry’s former chief of staff is one of the drug company’s three lobbyists in Texas. The governor also received $6,000 from Merck’s political action committee during his re-election campaign. “Merck is bankrolling efforts to pass state laws across the country mandating Gardasil for girls as young as 11 or 12.” As a mother, should I have to sign a waver to protect my daughter from having a potentially dangerous vaccine forced on her?

Remarkably, Brockovich and I are on the same page here! I’m also opposed to HPV vaccination as a prerequisite for school registration (making it effectively mandatory.)  Unlike casually transmissible diseases like mumps and measles, sneezing, coughing and casual contact at school isn’t going to spread HPV. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, and I sincerely hope that kids aren’t spreading it at school.  Merck does have a financial incentive to promote mandatory vaccination– when the first such proposals were appearing in state legislatures, it had the only HPV vaccine on the market, though FDA approval of GlaxoSmithKline’s Cervarix created a competitor. Michigan was actually the first state to consider mandatory cervical cancer vaccination for schoolgirls, though the bills never made it into law.

What makes this vaccine so terrible? It’s not just the fear that some parents have that administering a vaccine against stds to nine year olds will encourage sexual activity. The concern is based on much more concrete issues than that. 7195 of them, in fact.

The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) now has 7195 individual adverse reactions listed–and as it is a database not everyone knows about, not all of the adverse reactions are being reported. The Centers for Disease Control report over 9,000 adverse reactions for Gardasil. There is a rising total of deaths connected with the administration of this vaccine; as well as have been reports of seizure activity, tingling, numbness and loss of sensation in the fingers and limbs. There is serious question about girls initially having short-term health problems associated with getting this vaccine that could turn into long-term neurological or immune system disorders; and there is serious question about administering this vaccine at the same time as others.

VAERS admits on the introduction to its data page that it “contains coincidental events and those truly caused by vaccines.”  If you go to the doctor’s for a vaccine and get coughed on by a kid with the flu, the flu symptoms you report a week later might get recorded without context in VAERS.  “While some events reported to VAERS are truly caused by vaccines,” the site notes, “others may be related to an underlying disease or condition, to medications being taken concurrently, or may occur by chance. ” Further down on the same page, VAERS notes that “[e]stablishing causal relationships between vaccines and adverse events requires additional scientific investigation. ”  In order to access VAERS data, you’re required to affirm that you have read and understand these concepts.

(Looking through the massive 2007 VAERS data file I found at least one woman whose complaint was that her insurance denied coverage for the third and final dose of the vaccine.  “I HAVE SUFFERED CHRONIC PAIN, STRESS, ANXIETY” because of this denial, wrote the woman whose complaint is lodged on line 21173 on the VAERTS Excel file. “THIS IS AN ADVERSE VACCINE EVENT AND IT IS NOT FAIR.”)

Gardasil is a vaccine developed by Merck to prevent Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). HPV is known to cause cervical cancer. Although Merck has claimed that Gardasil has no significant side effects, reports filed with the FDA suggest otherwise.

The FDA Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System has more than 8,000 incidents associated with Gardasil. The most serious complications reported include death and the development of blood clots.

Claims of adverse effects are indeed troubling, and they should be investigated.  However, problems like lightheadedness and fainting after being stabbed with a needle are very common– I know my dad and I both pass out during even small blood draws.  Fever, pain, redness and swelling are signs that the vaccine is working and the immune system is responding to it, but these are also catalogued in VAERS.  Allergic reactions are likely to occur in a small percentage of people who receive any vaccine, some of them very serious or even life-threatening.

However, the raw VAERS data doesn’t distinguish between mild or routine adverse reactions and dangerous responses.  Bad reactions and deaths shouldn’t be glossed over, but considered in context. For each reported post-vaccine death, there are tens of thousands of women and girls who experienced minor problems or none at all.

If I told you to run out and get vaccinated against HPV, I would be a hypocrite: I remain unvaccinated because of my (admittedly irrational) phobia of being stabbed with sharp pointy things.  However, I don’t want you to be prevented from vaccinating if you’ve weighed the evidence and decided that the benefits outweigh the risks.