shot in the dark
By Paul Schratz
There has often been something of
a moral quandary for parents over the issue of vaccinating their
They weigh the benefits of keeping their children
healthy against the possible health risks involved with vaccinations
and the problematic background of some vaccines.
In the end, most parents opt to vaccinate. Now,
however, the dilemma is becoming more difficult with the
introduction of a new drug that raises a host of questions.
The vaccine, called Gardasil, is aimed at
preventing the spread of human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes
cancer of the cervix, a disease that infects 1,300 women a year in
Canada, claiming the lives of nearly 400 of them.
Those hundreds of deaths make HPV a legitimate
public health issue, but the speed and ferocity with which Gardasil
is being thrust on Canadians is truly breathtaking. Most of the
provinces are now launching HPV vaccination programs, some starting
as soon as September. In the U.S., several states have tried to make
the vaccinations mandatory.
Not since the Salk vaccine was introduced in the
1950s to combat polio has a drug been rushed into mass use so
vigorously, and for a disease that is nowhere near as serious a
public health risk. Cancer of the cervix, while a very real health
concern, is not among the 10 most common cancers for women, or among
the 10 most common causes of cancer-related deaths among women.
There remain questions about the safety of the
drug and whether mass inoculations are warranted, following reports
of illness and death after vaccinations.
In addition, some experts fear vaccinations could
give women a false sense of security, leading them to neglect other
forms of prevention and screening, such as regular pap smears.
The main concern, however, is the way the vaccine
is being pushed on young girls as young as 9, to tackle a virus that
is primarily spread through sexual contact. As one consultant
advised the B.C. Cancer Agency, this is not a vaccine against
cancer, but a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease,
implying a presumption of promiscuity among children.
The risk is that the vaccine will become yet
another easy solution for parents who are uncomfortable with or
opposed to teaching their children about restricting sexual activity
to marriage, just as they deal with other sexually transmitted
diseases and pregnancy by throwing pills and condoms at young
Moira McQueen, executive director of the Canadian
Catholic Bioethics Institute, said vaccinating against HPV is not
like vaccinating against a disease like measles for which there are
no other preventive measures.
"Itís completely dependent on young girls being
sexually active," she said in an interview with Canadian Catholic
News. "There is a rush to vaccinate people who do not need to be
vaccinated." HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases "are
preventable if abstinence is followed," she said.
The drug is being all but imposed on children
over the concerns of parents, large numbers of whom tell surveys
they oppose Gardasilís mandatory use. While parents who object
strenuously enough may manage to opt their children out of
vaccination program in jurisdictions trying to impose it, how many
parents have the level of commitment needed to oppose a process that
everyone else is going along with? Most will simply acquiesce.
One must also question the motivations behind
those responsible for the rapid introduction of this vaccine. Not
surprisingly, Merck & Co., the manufacturer thatís been lobbying for
mandatory vaccinations of Gardasil and has been successful in
getting provinces to buy into large-scale public vaccination
programs, is eyeing huge profit growth this year.
The B.C. government is wisely waiting one year before introducing
the vaccination program in its schools. It should wait even longer.
Gardasil may have appropriate uses, but the urgency with which itís
being promoted through a near-mandatory vaccination program is bad
policy on many levels.