Should parents worry about HPV vaccine?

That’s the question posed by CNN yesterday. It’s a good question. Any time a new vaccine or treatment is available, safety is a concern. Pre-marketing testing is likely to miss very rare reactions, so the government monitors new drugs when they hit the market. Gardasil has so far been quite safe, which does not rule out very rare problems that my crop up as more people are vaccinated.

Added to the general level of suspicion regarding Gardisil is Merck’s very aggressive marketing campaign aimed at the public and at state legislators.

All that aside, Gardasil is probably a good idea. Much of the hullabaloo surrounding its use has been ridiculous—attacks from religious fanatics and anti-vaccination cultists. In evaluating this promising new vaccine, we must set aside the noise from the wackos, and view things more objectively.

Gardasil protects against four of the common strains of HPV implicated in cervical, anal, and oral cancers. For it to fulfill it’s purpose, it should be given before the onset of sexual activity. This freaks people out. A lot. The idea of vaccinating a pre-pubescent girl against a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer is disturbing. It’s also a good idea.

The CNN article has a clear bias toward fear-mongering. If the fear is justified by the content, that is a good thing. If it is not, it is just bad reporting.

This one is bad reporting.

The article focuses on adverse events reported to VAERS. This system is set up to monitor the safety of vaccines as they are released to the general population. Anyone can report anything that occurs after a vaccine. Theoretically, you could make a report of a car accident if it happens after a shot.

VAERS has received over 7000 reports so far of events after Gardasil shots, 7% of which have been classified as “serious”. For all vaccines, VAERS receives about 30,000 reports annually, with about 10-15% of them being classified as “serious”. So far, reported serious events such as Guillain-Barré Syndrome and death have not been clearly linked to the vaccine.

The safety of a vaccine cannot be judged soley on VAERS data, as it is very unreliable, however based on the number so far, a much smaller percentage of adverse events are reported after Gardasil than other vaccines.

Gardasil is a hot-button issue, especially for the religious cults. Whether or not to make it mandatory is an important public policy debate. This debate is not informed by poorly-informed hysterical pieces in the press. C’mon, reporters, do your homework!