Gardsil's effectiveness, safety, marketing debated

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

In an effort to respond to questions and concerns surrounding the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine Gardasil, Western hosted a town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon.

The vaccine protects women from four strains of the HPV virus, eliminating 70 per cent of infections known to cause cervical cancer, and 90 per cent of infections known to cause genital warts.

The Ontario government launched an HPV immunization program in Aug. 2007, offering free vaccine to Grade 8 girls. Gardasil regularly costs $150 per dose and requires three doses.

Although the immunization program has been touted as a “no brainer” for sexually active women, many students and faculty members have expressed concerns about the drug’s reliability, effectiveness and marketing.

Four speakers " including Dr. Bryna Warshawsky, associate medical officer of health at the Middlesex-London Health Unit, and Jessica Polzer, assistant professor of women’s studies, feminist research and health sciences " sounded off on the virus and its vaccination.

Dr. Warshawsky noted the prevalence of HPV. Approximately 75 per cent of Canadians will contract the human papillomavirus in their lifetime, although many individuals naturally recover from the infection.

She said recent studies have shown it only takes one sexual partner to contract the virus. “This is why it’s important to immunize girls early,” Dr. Warshawsky added.

Other panel members spoke against the vaccine, pointing to the drug’s lack of long-term medical testing.

Maclean’s magazine reported the longest clinical trial [for Gardasil] lasted only five years,” fourth-year women’s studies student Erin Callaghan said. “Why is the vaccine being pushed so hastily?”

Louiza Szacon, a social justice and peace student, uncovered issues of political economy surrounding the pharmaceutical company that produces the vaccine: Merck Frosst.

Szacon pointed to a $1.5 million grant Merck Frosst awarded to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada that endorses the vaccine.

Finally, Polzer criticized Merck Frosst for its aggressive marketing campaign. She stressed the importance of questioning health decisions presented as obvious or imperative in the media.

Polzer also noted the drug is problematically sold to young girls as the only cervical cancer vaccine. She said the conflation of HPV and cervical cancer was misleading and may persuade women to skip regular Pap screenings.

All panel members urged students to seek more information about the HPV vaccine.

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