Is the HPV vaccine worth the risk?

By: May 30, 2011
hpv vaccine

Here's what you need to know about the highly controversial HPV vaccination.

Of all the women specific cancers, cervical cancer can be a tricky one to diagnose and treat.  Most adult women are aware of the cervical screening “pap tests”, which are never very pleasant, but they do regularly check for any symptoms and can be quite effective.

Canadian statistics on cervical cancer are 1,500 women per year diagnosed, with deaths in 500 of those cases.  More commonly, 80% of Canadian women will experience some form of HPV infection, be it through genital warts, sexual infections or throat or mouth cancers.

So, when a new treatment such as HPV vaccine, or “cervical vaccine” emerges, to prevent the infection of HPV in young women, are we to applaud – or are there drawbacks and side effects to this jab?  It is designed for girls and young women aged between 9 to 26, or those who have not been sexually active yet.  It is becoming present in most school vaccination programmes but is still considered controversial. Why?

The Human Papilloma virus (HPV) comes in 100 different forms with only 40 types affecting the genitals.  In general, HPV is a “family” of viruses which can affect the skin and any moist membrane, such as the mouth, throat, cervix and anus.  Most of these are low-risk.  It is when some high-risk types of the HPV infect these areas, that abnormal tissue growth can be caused.  Along with other cell changes, this could potentially develop into the more commonly known cancer of the cervix.

The “jab” itself is actually three separate injections given over a nine month period, and must be done within the year; the first one is followed by a second one two to three months afterwards, with a final jab coming six months after the second one.

It is the side effects that most frighten people.  As it is a relatively new, the full effect of the side effects is not yet known, with the most common being red swelling at the injection site, headaches and muscle pain. But the uncommon side effects are not pleasant: with upper respiratory tract infection, and in extremely rare cases, anaphylactic shock.  The trouble with the findings is that it is not possible to estimate how often these kind of effects will occur.  Shockingly, the reported cases of these side effects are not reported in controlled, test environments, but by the young girls being treated.  41 cases of anaphylactic shock were reported over a two year period from April 2008 to July 2010 in the UK. Is this figure too high to take the risk?

On-going research is basically being learnt through real-life trial and error, and although the risk is relatively low, with millions of vaccines being administered every year with no side effects, the health authorities can’t be 100% it won’t happen to you.  One of the unknown areas is how long the vaccine actually lasts for – when the young girl becomes sexually active, will the vaccine still be protecting her?  The experts don’t know.  It is also unknown whether boys can be treated in the same way.  It is also not known whether vaccination against some HPV types provides cover for others, as there are over 100 types, so cross-protection is not guaranteed. 

Cervical screening of the traditional methods is still advised throughout the female life.  So is the HPV vaccine worth the risk? When it comes to you and your families’ health the choice is yours.