“Mind you, I don’t plan to be sexually active till at least 16,” said 13-year-old Kalen on national television, while her mother responded with laughter. “We have that on the record now,” she mom, smiling. The two were being interviewed for CBC’s The National in an in-depth look at the new vaccine Gardasil, which was unleashed this September on Ontario’s 13-year-old girls and on Grade 6 girls in the Maritimes. The vaccine is an attempt by the Canadian government to stem the tide of one of the most unprecedented, but silent, epidemics our nation has ever seen.
Human papilloma virus, or HPV, is a sexually transmitted disease that causes genital warts from some strains and cervical cancer from others. In fact, 70 to 90 per cent of cervical cancer cases are caused by the virus.
According to the CBC mini-documentary, girls entering school this year will be told that “most girls and women will contract the virus,” but that, in most cases, the body’s immune system will fight it off. For those few whose bodies are unable to cope with the disease, they will be at risk for cervical cancer. Health Canada reports that 400 women die a year from the cancer, while 1,400 new cases appear each year.
In a culture where sexual promiscuity is rarely discouraged or frowned upon, even among our young adolescents, but often accepted as the status quo, it is no wonder that our response to an epidemic of these proportions would be not to change our behaviour, but to use drugs as the first line of defence – drugs that we know little about.
Gardasil has been in clinical trials for only five years and on the market in Canada and the United States for one. To date, approximately five million vaccines have been sold and adverse affects have been reported. The CBC says there had been a “slight number” of fainting and temporary paralysis incidents among these young girls. The vaccine is linked to a “slight number” of cases of Guillan Barre Syndrome, an immune system disorder that attacks the nervous system.
In the clinical trials themselves, conducted by the drug’s manufacturer Merck & Co., the vaccine was linked to a “slight” increase in auto immune disorders, arthritic and thyroid conditions. Both Health Canada and the Food and Drug Administration in the United States have called for more trials to investigate these findings, yet the vaccine appears to have been rushed to market.
Heavy lobbying and slick advertising campaigns by Merck & Co. have bent the ear of our politicians, such that Steven Harper has promised the provinces $300 million over three years in order to purchase the vaccine. The company itself could see earnings upwards of $1 billion in the U.S. alone as vaccine campaigns begin to take root; $4 billion if it successfully produces a vaccine for men.
Spokespersons from Merck insist the drug is safe for our nation’s daughters, but it is a tale that has been told before. On the same day that the CBC documentary aired, the Toronto Starran a full-page article on the failure of hormone replacement therapy, once touted by drug manufacturers and health officials as a must for all menopausal women.
Studies are now bringing to light the significant increase in breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, blood clots, ovarian cancer and dementia that it has caused. American researchers found that there were 14,000 fewer cases of breast cancer in 2003, compared to 2002, as millions of women, alerted to these findings, discarded their HRT. In Canada, it is estimated that there are 600 to 700 fewer cases of breast cancer. Dr. Jacques Roussow of the Women’s Health Initiative is quoted in the article as saying, “The WHI findings have probably prevented tens of thousands of strokes, heart attacks, blood clots and breast cancers in the U.S. alone.”
One only wonders what $300 million of solid abstinence education would do for our pre-pubescent children, as opposed to the untold dangers of continuing to remain silent on the issue while we pump foreign substances into their veins at an extraordinary cost to taxpayers. And one important note not to be missed: if a girl has already been exposed to HPV, the vaccine will have no effect.
Will the knowledge that they are immunized against four strains of one STD gives these girls a false sense of security, will itoffset earlier, more risky sexual behaviour? Are we sending yet another message to our youngsters that they have no ability to control themselves and that sexual behaviour amongst their age group is condoned by our society?
Are we failing them by substituting drugs for invaluable guidance and leadership and putting their young bodies at risk so we don’t have to live up to a higher standard? In a society where empirical evidence trumps common sense, we will just have to wait for the studies to come out.
Natalie Hudson is the executive director of the Right to Life Association of Toronto and Area.