"Is the Gardasil vaccine safe?"
This is the question posed by a 14-year-old girl on the top of a Yahoo Answers page, an online forum for users to share information with one another.
The comments section is a testament to the sensitivity surrounding the vaccine that offers protection against four strains human papillomavirus linked to cervical cancer. The online debate remains strongly divided as well as argumentative and aggressive.
"NO NO NO. It's not safe at all," one commenter wrote. "I would do everything in your power to prevent having the rest of the shots."
"Ignore the deranged conspiracy theorist," another responded.
But I really didn't know this debate was still raging until after I received my first Gardasil shot about six weeks ago, after the third time a gynecologist told me to go get it.
"It's a vaccine that prevents cancer; I think that's one of the greatest things," said Kai Tao, the vice president of clinical operations at Planned Parenthood of Illinois. "We don't know anything else that prevents cancer right now."
The vaccine guards against two strains that are responsible for 75 percent of the cases of cervical cancer. Planned Parenthood has been recommending the shot for most young women who come through the doors.
Tao points to the fact that not only has the FDA approved the vaccine, but other groups recommending it include the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force.
I first learned of the Gardasil controversy in 2008 when Dr. Christiane Northrup appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Northrup is considered an expert on menopause and is the author of many books. She was taking questions from the audience when a woman asked her what she thought of the vaccine.
Northrup opposed giving the shot to girls. She pointed out that it only protects against four strains of the virus and that regular screenings for cervical cancer, such as Pap smears, have resulted in decreasing numbers of deaths from cervical cancer.
A year later, the National Vaccine Information Center released a study that compared the safety of the HPV vaccine to the Menactra vaccine to prevent meningitis. Researchers wanted to compare the number of reports of serious side effects related to Gardasil to a more common and well-accepted inoculation. The study found that there were twice as many incidents reported for the HPV vaccine. There were four times more deaths reported, though the connection to the virus has never been confirmed.
This report made its way through the news media with stories featuring mothers and daughters talking about their own negative experiences with the shot. But I just recently found the report, the point in my research where I started to freak out. Had I made a mistake? The studies I read beforehand focused mostly on the debate surrounding boys receiving the vaccine to prevent the virus. No one had said it was more dangerous than other shots.
According to Cara Tuttle Bell, director of programs from the Northwestern University's Women's Center, the negative effects of the shot have actually been minimal and non-life threatening. Some women and girls report side effects such as fainting, headaches, nausea or fever, but no deaths have been confirmed as being related to the HPV vaccine, Bell said.
"When we know the benefit greatly outweighs the possible small risk, we feel comfortable," Tao said.
While talking about the cancer-preventing effects of the vaccine, Tao made an interesting point that often gets overlooked. The vaccine also protects against condyloma, or genital warts. Although not deadly, Tao said the disease shouldn't be swept aside.
"Also, it can really affect someone's self-esteem and how they see themselves sexually," Tao said.
The statistic that really sold me on continuing the shots is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the CDC, 50 percent of sexually active men and women will contract the virus at some point in their lives.
- blog by Anna Gaynor, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University