Posted on

The HPV vaccination debate


A few weeks after the introduction of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine for girls in Grade Six, the roll-out by the Ministry of Health Wellness and the Environment has run into some turbulence.

The wisdom of administering the vaccine to our girls is now being questioned by some, after a small group of citizens came full blast with a multimedia anti-vaccination campaign, leaving the Ministry of Health to play catch up with its own education programme.

Our medical personnel argue that the scientific case for administering the vaccine is overwhelming, but the ‘anti-vaxxers’ hold that the risks of taking the vaccine outweigh the presumed benefits.

The medical community offers three compelling truths. First, HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, as well as cancers of the anus, penis, several mouth and throat cancers, and genital warts. Second, the virus is so ubiquitous that over 80 per cent of sexually active people will at one point or the other be exposed to the virus. And third, if administered to children between the ages of 9-14 years, the vaccine will offer lifetime protection for them.

In a country where cervical cancer has cut short the lives of over 50 women between 2009 and 2015 and where despite public education, far too few women have annual pap smears, the vaccine promises a significant reduction in the number of women whose lives will be imperilled due to exposure to the virus.

It is certainly the case that not all persons who contract HPV would develop cancer. But a significant number would do so. And for the vast majority of them, the pain and suffering that they would undergo is preventable, simply by taking the HPV vaccine.

The anti-vaxxers have argued that the vaccine is dangerous and cite published reports of girls who have had adverse reactions, some very serious, after they were administered the vaccine.

These reports must be put into context. What the anti-vaxxers do not say is that worldwide, over 200 million doses of the vaccine have been administered, and of these, there has been on average, one adverse reaction for every one million doses given and most of these reactions were not serious. There are other allegations, none proven, that the vaccine will lead to infertility or promiscuity.

We urge parents and guardians to do their own in-depth research and not rely on incomplete information or misinformation provided by those who eschew scientific knowledge and play on the fears and misgivings of parents.

What value do we place on scientific knowledge compared with claims based on hearsay or value systems suspicious of scientific expertise?

This much we know. The extraordinary lengthening of human longevity over the last 100 years has been a direct result of the massive vaccination campaigns against childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, polio, and small pox – just to name a few. The very same scientific and medical technologies which have brought us such huge benefits are the same ones which inform us that the HPV vaccine will save millions of lives.

In this collision of scientific truths versus the fears of those whose expertise and experience lie in other fields, we choose science. If we value as we do, the lives of our young girls who would one day be wives, mothers, girlfriends, we have no other choice. And one day, cervical cancer, like polio, measles, mumps, and small pox, would be a distant memory.