What's True And False In The Debate Over The Gardasil Vaccine | Connecticut Public Radio

What's True And False In The Debate Over The Gardasil Vaccine

Mar 19, 2019

People who describe themselves as "proponents for choice in vaccines" held a press conference Tuesday at the state capitol, on pending state legislation that would mandate certain vaccines. Part of the press conference was a presentation by vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who raised concerns about the safety of one particular vaccine, Gardasil. 

Gardasil is a vaccination against the HPV or human papillomavirus which can cause certain types of cancer. Currently it's a voluntary vaccine that's offered to all children in Connecticut, but not mandated. A bill in the legislature would require families to vaccinate their children against HPV.

Kennedy told reporters that the vaccine is unsafe and causes vaccine injury. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention says Gardasil is "very safe."

Connecticut Public Radio’s Ray Hardman spoke with Dr. Nick Bennett, the division head of infectious diseases and immunology at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. Here are some highlights from their conversation.

What is the vaccine for?

Gardasil is a vaccine that was developed several years ago, and has gone through at least one iteration of improvement since then. It’s a non-live vaccine, it’s made from purified proteins of the various strains of human papillomavirus, and it’s extraordinarily effective. And what it does is it helps prevent infection with strains of HPV, which cause two primary diseases. One is genital warts, which is obviously a sexually transmitted infection, but also cervical cancer.

Is it safe?

In my experience, Gardasil is extremely safe. The vaccine reactions that have been reported and well described are really injection-site reactions -- so redness, pain and swelling. And then there’s a link with older teens who get it with fainting, but that’s the same with any vaccine at that age.

On Kennedy’s claim that 50 percent of women who get the vaccine have a major injury.

I don’t know where he’s getting that information from, because there’s simply none of that information published or available. He may be referring to the VAERS, the vaccine adverse event reporting system, which is a voluntary reporting system. But that’s not an accurate way of assessing the risk at all.

On Kennedy’s claim that aluminum adjuvant in the vaccine causes immune system problems.

That’s a very inaccurate representation. The aluminum adjuvant is there to stimulate the immune system so we use less vaccine. If we didn’t have it we’d have to use a lot more of the viral proteins. Gardasil was studied very cleverly with a three-arm study: with placebo, with adjuvant, and with the full vaccine. So they’re able to say which side-effects are due to the adjuvant and which are due to the vaccine, in total.

Why should parents get their children vaccinated against HPV?

You’re preventing cancer in your child. The gynaecologists who speak to the pediatricians at the conferences I’ve been to are screaming at us to please immunize children, because they’re seeing the side effects in adults from not immunizing. The second thing is, the earlier you do it the better. We know that in younger children -- less than 15 -- you only need two doses, you don’t need a three-dose series. So in fact the earlier you start it, the fewer vaccines your child needs in order to protect them from cervical cancer. But also, boys should get it too. Boys obviously give the virus to girls, and it protects the boys from penile cancer.

On criticism of the vaccine.

I think the critics are around because they see it as a vaccine against one STD, and they see it as a license to promiscuity, which is simply not true. There is no data or evidence that suggests that people who get Gardasil are any more likely to be promiscuous. And frankly that’s a moralistic argument that doesn’t jive with science.

Frankie Graziano and Harriet Jones contributed to this report.