The New York Times published an article in which some health experts questioned whether we should inoculate otherwise healthy young girls with the HPV vaccine, given that it carries some risk and cervical cancer can be prevented with proper screening.
“There are not a huge number of side effects here, that’s fairly certain,” said the editorial writer, Dr. Charlotte Haug, an infectious disease expert from Norway, about the vaccine. “But you are giving this to perfectly healthy young girls, so even a rare thing may be too much of a risk.
“I wouldn’t accept much risk of side effects at all in an 11-year-old girl, because if she gets screened when she’s older, she’ll never get cervical cancer,” Dr. Haug said in an interview. “You don’t have to die from cervical cancer if you have access to health care.”
Okay, her argument makes sense. But can any of us truly count on always having access to health care? Let’s say some wealthy parents decline the vaccine. These parents assume their children will always have access to health care that includes an annual exam and screening for cervical cancer. Is that a safe assumption? I don’t think so.
These critics of the vaccine also seem to overlook the fact that the vaccine protects against some strains of HPV that cause genital warts. That alone seems a worthwhile reason to get the vaccine.
Any of the parents whose children have suffered side effects after the vaccine may well be asking whether it was necessary or even helpful given that their children could have been protected from cervical cancer in other ways.
Years ago I read a story about national research looking for a vaccine for chlamydia. Chlamydia, in addition to being a common sexually transmitted infection, is also the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness. If you have access to health care, you don’t have to go blind from chlamydia. People without access can and do go blind from it. For those who do have health care, if there was a vaccine for chlamydia, wouldn’t you get it just to avoid ever having chlamydia?
Maybe the information we should take from the NYT and the experts cited there is that the vaccine has been directed to the wrong audience. Merck has invested a lot of money into its “one less” commercials encouraging women to avoid becoming a woman with cervical cancer. Perhaps this money would have been better spent in handing out free vaccines to those members of our society who have the least access to health care.
Merck has in fact made some efforts to do just that; however, I do wonder how these uninsured patients will ever access the private doctor’s offices where the free vaccine is administered:
Merck has also initiated a new patient assistance program for vaccines. Through this new program, currently available in private physicians’ offices and private clinics, Merck is making available, free of charge, GARDASIL and other Merck vaccines indicated for use in individuals aged 19 and older who are uninsured and who are unable to afford vaccines.
I would think this program would be more effective if they gave away the vaccine at places like Rite-Aid, where the pharmacist can give them and you wouldn’t have to have a doctor visit. But their efforts nonetheless are noteworthy.
I don’t purport to know what is best for 11-year-old girls around our country; but I do think we have been bombarded with information about the vaccine and now have a bit more information to counterbalance Merck’s advertising. Ultimately there are numerous risks to be weighed.
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