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Gardasil: Are the Health Risks Too High?

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Overnight, a girl goes from being healthy to having severe brain damage. Could Gardasil shots be to blame?

Girl getting vaccine
We've all seen the commercials about how Gardasil, the cervical-cancer vaccine, helps protect against four types of human papillomavirus (HPV). The ads are working. So far, more than 24 million doses have been distributed in the U.S. The vaccine is not without its complications: Thirty-nine women have died after getting it, according to the CDC -- though none of these deaths has been officially linked directly to the vaccine. 

Now, the popular vaccine has been linked to another sad case: It allegedly caused an otherwise-healthy teen to suffer serious medical issues. Shortly after Albuquerque, N. Mex., teen Alexis Wolf got her shots, "she went from a happy kid to a teen who suffered from violent seizures, vomiting, pain and insomnia," says Alexis' mom, Tracy. The Wolf family is suing Merck, the makers of Gardasil

Is Gardasil safe for YOUR daughter? We asked two well-respected OB/GYNs, Dr. Hilda Hutcherson and Dr. Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz, to weigh in on this serious issue.

momlogic: Is Gardasil a must for all teen girls, even if they are not sexually active?

Dr. Hilda Hutcherson: Many people tie this vaccine to sexual activity, but we need to separate it from sexual activity and look at it as cancer prevention. When you look at it as cancer prevention, it's a lot easier to embrace it. I tell moms that you are giving something to your daughter that could potentially save her life in the future.

Dr. Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz: I try to explain to moms, in plain English, what HPV is and why it poses problems -- i.e., what the virus is, what the subtypes are and which are the "bad players." I tell them that Gardasil may reduce the risk of transmission of four specific subtypes of the virus that can cause genital warts and that can cause dysplasia, or potentially precancerous changes of the cervix that may lead to cervical cancer if left untreated in some, not all, women. Moms should ask themselves: Are they getting their daughters vaccinated with a clear understanding of what the vaccination can and cannot do, or are they doing it out of panic, fear or guilt?

With all due respect, no one ever knows for sure what another is really up to, and even the best mother-daughter relationships might harbor some secrets. Furthermore, assuming that the non-sexual teen will reliably remain in that state is just an accident waiting to happen. I say, give your daughters (and sons!) all the best info and resources, and guide them to trusted grownups (counselors, doctors, etc.) ahead of time, if at all possible, so that they do have someone who is not you to talk to "just in case." My teen patients who are given these opportunities may feel embarrassed initially (the "Moo-oom!" syndrome), but also appreciate the respect that their parents are giving them to make decisions safely and wisely.

ml: Many mothers who write to us with hesitancy about the vaccine fear they are hurting their daughters by NOT allowing them to get the vaccine. Are they?

HH: I don't believe in making mothers feel guilty. I just try to provide the information. I say, "These are the facts we have right now. You use the information given to you and make the best decision based upon this." You as a mom have to make the right decision for your child.

SGL: It is true that rates of STDs among teens are on the rise. According to a 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation report, 25 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds and nearly 50 percent of American teens have had chlamydia, trichomoniasis or HPV, with HPV being most common. Thirty-five percent of 13- to 19-year-olds are HPV-positive. But it is also true that 80 to 90 percent of those infected even with the highest-risk HPV strains will clear the infection on their own within two years. In the end, it is a crapshoot!

ml: What about uninsured girls whose parents can't afford the pricey protection?

HH: The people who need it the most aren't getting it. It's an access issue. They don't have access to something that could be lifesaving, because they can't afford it. I feel it's something we should provide for women who can't afford it. Children aged 18 and younger may be eligible to get vaccines, including the HPV vaccine, for free through the Vaccines for Children program.

SGL: I believe that leveling the field was one of the aims of the bills that some states proposed to require vaccinations for school entry, similar to other more common vaccinations such as measles, hepatitis B, etc. It's also important to note here that 85 percent of diagnoses and deaths due to cervical cancer occur in developing nations. Clearly, poverty and lack of healthcare play a big role in this disease and need attention. We should be getting this vaccination to the poor women of the world, regardless of their country of residence.

ml: Gardasil's a brand-new drug -- why are we lining up our daughters to get these injections without more thought?

HH: The FDA doesn't let anything get through unless it was adequately tested, and I think this vaccine was properly tested. I feel comfortable recommending this vaccine to my family members. There's nothing on this planet that doesn't have risks, but you have to weigh the benefits and the risks. When you measure the few women who possibly had a bad outcome (that we can't yet directly link to the vaccine) and the thousands of women whose lives can be saved, I come out on the side of the benefits outweighing the risks.

SGL: Why are we lining up our daughters to get these injections? Because as moms, we want to do the right thing, and we got the message loud and clear that this was the right thing.

ml: How do we know the long-term side effects when the drug was so quickly approved and administered in waves?

HH: There are reported short-term side effects and reactions like fainting, but I haven't seen that in my office. In terms of the long-term side effects, the FDA has approved this and deemed it safe. I don't think it was "quickly" approved, because they don't "quickly" approve anything! Gardasil was thoroughly tested before it came on the market. And if it protects you from cervical cancer and can potentially save your life, that beneficial effect cannot be disputed -- and, in my opinion, outweighs the risks.

SGL: The FDA approval process involved more than 4,000 vaccinations over four years, and this government body felt that this was adequate to bring the product to market. Understanding that there had been no way, prior to this point in time, to prevent the disease -- and the public health and personal impacts of not only cervical cancer, but frequent pap smears, colposcopies, cervical biopsies, the physical and psychological pain, shame and blame -- is really critical in adding context to the decision to develop the vaccination and bring it to market rapidly. There has been long-term frustration in this area for patients, researchers and practitioners.

A handful of my patients developed side effects. One developed mysterious neurological symptoms that we cannot diagnose. There is no way to know if this is a coincidence or not, but more than one study -- including a 2007 study looking at 270,000 doses administered in Australia -- has revealed a five- to ten-fold increase in "reactions" to this vaccination over other common vaccinations. The absolute numbers are quite low -- 7 incidents in 270,000 -- but statistically significant.

ml: What about the reported deaths?

HH: These cannot be directly tied to this vaccine. Millions have received the vaccine, and 39 young people tragically died at some point after receiving the vaccine. Those deaths have not been tied directly to the vaccine at this point. I feel for the families, and no young person should have to die, but this vaccine will save thousands of lives per year.

SGL: It has been very hard to link the reported incidents, reactions and deaths to the vaccination, partly because there is no obvious pattern and the absolute numbers are low. But for most mothers, they are obviously a cause for concern.

ml: Would you allow your daughter to get the Gardasil vaccine?

HH: Yes.

SGL: She is only 8. The jury is out.

How do you determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks for your daughter? Both doctors agree that this isn't a decision that should be taken lightly. Download momlogic's Should Your Daughter Get the Gardasil Vaccine? Questions Every Mother Should Ask printable guide for more information.

Would you allow (or have you allowed) your daughter to get the Gardasil vaccine? Why or why not?

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104 comments so far | Post a comment now
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD July 30, 2010, 10:22 AM

“I don’t believe in making mothers feel guilty,” either. I’m a pediatrician and talk about HPV every day I’m in clinic iwth girls and their moms. SOon we’ll also be talking withe the moms of teenage boys, too.
Thanks for writing about HPV and the Gardasil. I only wish you wouldn’t have opened the story with a scare tactic. So much of what mothers will remember is the story of a girl dying. And without any proof of causality (meaning we have no idea is the shot is to blame), I believe the way this was presented is misleading.
I appreciated the doctor’s comments; thanks for helping educate moms about the choice and ways we can protect girls from HPV infection and cervical cancer.

Kathleen July 30, 2010, 11:24 AM

Using the argument that Gardasil must be safe because the FDA approved it does not give me a warm fuzzy. FDA has had to revoke approval of many drugs such as Vioxx, Thalidomide, Rezulin, Duract, Redux, Zelnorm,Seldone, Propulsid, Posicor, Reglan, Avastin and now potentially Avandia just to name but a few. The FDA uses the studies that the drug companies provide and do not necessarily do their own studies of the drug. The UK pulled Gardasil for a time due to complications and spontaneous abortions further down the road for women that had taken it. I think the jury is still out. I don’t want to risk my young girl now for the already linked side effects and then to find out in 10 years that once again the FDA was wrong when even more serious side effects begin to show. The general public does not necessarily know where to contact the FDA to report the side effects either so the rate of reported incidents can be drastically understated. I will continue to take my child for regular doctors appointments instead of getting immunizations for a potentially false sense of security.

Kristen July 30, 2010, 1:52 PM

Kathleen, LOVED your very educated comments. I agree with everything you said and I will NOT be letting my child be a guinea pig for this shot.

Tracy July 30, 2010, 2:23 PM

I will not allow my daughter to get this “vaccine”. She is only 3 right now but my 21 year old sister got it n has been in and out of the hospital ever since. FDA approval means nothing, they’ll approve anything that puts a couple bucks in their pockets. Let’s talk about why this “vaccine” has been banned in so many other countries. Mothers, do not allow ur daughters to get this “vaccine” it’s more harmful than good. We didn’t have it, how did we survive? Doctors should be ashamed of themselves for promoting this drug.

XXXX July 30, 2010, 3:40 PM


Wendi July 30, 2010, 3:56 PM

I let my daughter get it, she was 13 and is now 15 with no problems at all. It is scary to give any vaccine, however sometimes you have to have faith and know that they will be fine and that the research has been done. You also have to take into consideration that with any new drug there are people that are going to have problems. You can’t blame the company because they don’t know what your child has been exposed to, what other meds they are on and their general health.

Lindy July 30, 2010, 6:47 PM

I agree with Wendi. My daughter got it at 18 and is now 21. She hasn’t had any problems.

tennmom July 31, 2010, 9:01 PM

My oldest is 12. When I asked our doc if she was going to give it to her 13 year old, she said: “Not yet.” When she gives it to her daughter, I will consider giving it to mine.

Dawn Crim August 1, 2010, 2:59 PM

What this article does NOT tell you is that our government officials have known for over 10 years now that vaccines have been CAUSING HPV. Now, if you get the vaccine and have already been exposed to one of the strains in the vaccines, you just INCREASED your risk of cervical cancer. Please, with the internet these days, it is not too hard to find the truth. Read, “Fear of the Invisible” by Janine Roberts to find out exactly what vaccines have done to the human race (our genes).

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Toni August 3, 2010, 11:26 AM

I received the vaccine a number of years ago. I am now in my twenties, with no side-effects. Many girls in my family have received it as well, with no side-effects. A lot of my friends have also received the vaccine… with no side-effects. Just FYI.

R. Boyce August 18, 2010, 8:09 AM

My daughter had Gardasil 6 mos. after it was out. Her pediatrician told me it had been out for years with no side effects. Unfortunately, I would say my daughter was one of Merck’s guinea pigs. Within months of the vaccine, my daughter developed severe pneumonia. Later that year, her hair started to fall out, she started having migraines and pins & needles sensations. The kicker was when she started to go through menopause at age 21 - (polysorbate is one of the ingredients and has been known to cause sterility). Other, equally debilitating side effects ensued in the following months. God was watching over my angel because I was able to find other parents whose daughters were experiencing similar side effects post-Gardasil. Through the sharing of information (much from the autistic community)and because God put people in my life to help, my daughter is currently recovering on a strict ‘diet’ and vitamin regimen. What I found was that many children have something called pyruvate kinase deficiency (it can be genetic) which makes them at a higher risk of injury from a vaccine or certain medications. They are deficient in B vitamins and can NEVER overcome the oxidative stress of a vaccine unless they supplement with vitamins. I am almost certain that doctors were never trained in this deficiency (G6PD, sickle-cell, thelassemia, etc. - there are 6 that I’ve found) because most Big Pharma’s pay for the medical books.

Gardasil is NOT safe for anyone as far as I’m concerned. After my daughter’s friends were also vaccinated, many came down with migraines, lyme-diagnosis, mono, strep - all signs of metal toxicity. Check out or S.A.N.E.VAX … these are all women who have done a tremendous amount of research. I think Big Pharma is intentionally damaging our children (Merck recently released a fertility drug overseas called Elonva). RESEARCH BEFORE YOU VACCINATE. WE ARE NOT BEING TOLD THE TRUTH!

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Steph-honey November 21, 2010, 11:23 PM

R.Boyce, did your child receive any other childhood vaccinations? If so, how can you put all the blame on the Gardasil immunization? Polysorbate and other preservatives and fillers are in many vaccines, so unless you’ve asked for an ingredient list of every injectable and oral medications of everything your child has ever consumed…well, I have to say, you’re really jumping on the “Blame the Gardasil!” bandwagon. As a healthcare provider, I have my concerns as well. There are things about this immunization that don’t make sense: for example, it does not make sense that children would simply get syncope from it-kids don’t just pass out from flu shots, they don’t just pass out from tetanus boosters…yet, about 1 in 7 will simply just get light-headed and black-out from Gardasil. It’s transient, and they wake right up, with no lingering effects, but it’s still bizarre. Three of my four girls received the immunization (before all the side-effects were well known), and we’re kind of holding off on the 4th daughter. Yet, we also know that as a preventative medication, it’s a really wonderful development. Cervical cancer, while easy to treat if caught early, is nearly always fatal if NOT caught early. At stage 3, it’s 5 year survival rate is only 35%-at stage 4, that drops to a mere 16%. Sure not the sunny picture you hear on the news, is it? We don’t want to risk that for our kids if we can help them prevent it. The immunization is 75% effective at preventing cancer, and 90% effective at preventing warts. At her age, I worry less about her being sexually active than I do about her infecting herself-she’s developed several warts on one hand, and I know that if they shed the virus, and she were to even wash genital area with her hand instead of a wash cloth, she could-in theory-give herself HPV. Not a pretty picture, and one that’s preventable!

I’m not going to let a little polysorbate, which my kids all got in spades during their early years when they were used as pin cushions for immunizations (some of which I argued against as unnecessary or excessive), make the decision about Gardasil. I have other reservations-but your alleged damages are too much like hearing that mercury in immunizations causes ADD and autism in children. If that’s so-why is it so selective? And why have peer reviewed journal studies in so many countries in the past 15 years been unable to find a connection?

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