Snakeoil is a traditional Chinese medicine that treats joint pain, but the expression is more often used to describe the wildly exaggerated and sometimes fraudulent claims made in selling concoctions that will remedy or cure all sorts of ailments. But it is no exaggeration to call governments, some health officials and many in the media the 21st century snakeoil salesman in their relentless push to have our daughters vaccinated with Gardasil or other anti-HPV vaccines.

The vaccine is designed to prevent the sexually transmitted disease Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which can lead to cervical cancer. Some politicians, including school board trustees, and and their parrots in the media are erroneoulsy calling it an anti-cancer vaccine which they insinuate will eliminate cervical cancer in our daughters. The rhetoric is quite misleading.

The Gardasil vaccine is effective against only four strains of HPV, two of which can cause cancer (the other two can lead to genital warts). Sexually active young females will still catch sexually transmitted diseases and still be susceptible to cervical cancer. Yet headlines and statements about it being an anti-cancer vaccine continue to dominate (and mislead) the debate. Dr. Tao Wang of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto told the Toronto Sun, “We finally have a vaccine that can reduce HPV and prevent cancer.” Many in the public will read that in one of two erroneous ways: the vaccine prevents cancer or, worse, that it cures cancer. It is profoundly irresponsible to sell the vaccine this way.

A little perspective is in order. People quite rightly recoil when they hear the word cancer; nobody wants to get it, let alone see a young girl die due to the often-deadly disease. In Canada, there are about 1,350 cases of cervical cancer each year and about three-quarters of them will survive. (By contrast, there are 2,400 cases of ovarian cancer and 1,700 deaths.) And when one Toronto Catholic school board trustee said they have the opportunity to cure cancer in children although cervical cancer hits predominantly women 20-44, she is grossly misrepresenting the capabilities of the vaccine.

Some moralists have argued that providing the vaccine to teens and pre-teens will lead to promiscuity. That is doubtful. I can’t imagine there is a single girl who would remain chaste simply because she feared getting HPV or cervical cancer. Fear of other sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS/HIV, and wanting to avoid pregnancy will still be strong incentives for these young ladies to put off sex.

There is something to the argument, though, that the vaccine lets parents and teachers off a little too easy — and that’s part of the snakeoil salesmanship: give your daughters and students this vaccine and everything will be all right. Of course, they don’t say it in so many words but that is exactly the message. Many parents would rather avoid discussing ‘the birds and the bees’ with their children and many teachers are either ill-prepared or prevented from discussing with their students the moral issues surrounding sex. The anti-HPV vaccine addresses one, rather limited aspect of pre-marital sex.

More importantly, however, is that the vaccine has not proven to be safe. This summer, Macleans ran a cover story saying that the mass vaccination programs being supported by the provinces and federal government across the country, given to students in Grades 5-8, will turn an entire generation of young girls into guinea pigs. The Globe and Mail countered that “there is no evidence the vaccine is dangerous.” Really, what would you call 1,637 complaints, as of May, to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System in the United States? The drug was only introduced to the American public in 2005. These ‘adverse events’ include at least three deaths, but also paralysis, seizures, blood clotting and Guillain-Barre syndrome (an antoimmune disease).

Furthermore, there are always concerns about vaccinations given to developing adolescents. According to the Women’s Health Network, of the 1,200 9-15 year-old girls studied in clincal trials, just 100 were nine-year-olds and they were only studied for 18 months. No one knows what long-term health or developmental consequences there might be. As Macleans reports, “in the best case scenario, many believe there is still not enough known about the HPV vaccine to warrant mass inoculation programs.”

This is not to say that the HPV vaccine is not a good thing, it is simply to point out that we need a lot more information. Parents consulting their doctors and being provided all the available information about the potential risks associated with the vaccine still might decide they want to protect their daughters from an STD that sometimes leads to cervical cancer. But governments should not hop on a bandwagon and fund a massive inoculation program for elementary school students based on the shoddy amount of information available. By doing so, they might be making schools hazardous to young girls’ health.

–Paul Tuns