Ka hao te Rakatahi
HPV – playing it safe

Nā Nuku Tau

Recently there have been a few stories on my newsfeed about Gardasil, the HPV vaccination. This story has just resurfaced because it is now government-funded for boys as well as girls. The full vaccination consists of a series of three shots over the course of six months, at around $200 a shot. You would think many people would jump at the opportunity to save $600 and immunise their rangatahi for free, but unfortunately that isn’t the case.

So what is HPV, and what is the vaccine? To paraphrase The Guardian, Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is sexually transmitted, and almost all sexually active adults carry some of the 170 different strains. Subtypes 6 and 11 can lead to genital warts, while 16 and 18 can lead to numerous forms of cancer, chiefly cervical cancer. In fact, over 90% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV and according to the World Health Organisation, in 2012 alone, 270,000 women died from it.

Gardasil is 99% effective against the four worst strains of HPV. The pharmaceutical company Merck began clinical development of the vaccine in 1997, and the vaccine passed all three phases of testing before being released to the public. In fact, our Government fast-tracked its release, believing it would be unethical to withhold it.

But the latest research suggests that only 60% of Pākehā girls have received the vaccination. Pākehā were the lowest uptake group, but not all Māori or Pasifika girls were immunised either, despite the fact that Māori are disproportionately at risk for cervical cancer. Amongst those Māori/Pasifika girls who did receive the vaccination, there has been a 92.3% reduction in genital warts.

And yet a quick scan of the comments section on any article regarding HPV will show you a tidal wave of comments from recalcitrant Kiwis who refuse to vaccinate their sons. Being vaccinated myself, I decided to do some research and find out if the HPV vaccine is safe and effective OR if it really is part of a global operation to thin the population, as one commenter suggested.

After a few hours on Google I found that most anti-vaccination arguments consisted of religious and moral reasons, some raw data regularly cited in articles, and the tragic death of a young woman here in New Zealand.

Religious arguments came mostly from the United States, with the general gist being that abstinence works better than vaccines. Moral arguments similarly claimed that kids shouldn’t be exposed to sexual issues and ideas at such a young age – parents sort of burying their heads in the sand about the fact that their children will one day be sexually active. I’m on a word limit so I’ve decided to completely ignore these arguments and label them as illegitimate. Feel free to research them yourself if you’d like to know more.

Another argument against the vaccination cites statistics, with the most prominent of these stating that the vaccine has directly killed 32 women in the United States. Again, this information is misleading. The 32 deaths reported as of 2008 were all carefully analysed by medical experts. There was no common link to suggest they were caused by the Gardasil vaccine. None.

The second statistic is similar, with 24,000 reported cases of adverse effects from the vaccination in the United States between June 2006 and March 2013 out of 57 million doses administered. According to a statement released by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 92% of these cases were classified as not serious, while the remaining 8% were generally “headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, syncope, and generalised weakness.” All of these were identified in the vaccine’s trials before it was made available to the public.

It is also important to remember that reports of adverse effects aren’t scientifically analysed. One could call up and report a headache not long after receiving the vaccination, ignoring other factors such as dehydration. When the mumps and measles vaccines were first introduced, there were 60,000 reports of similar effects. It is standard for new vaccines, and it is wrong, even immoral to throw these numbers around without context.

I realise I’ve been focussing on the United States so I’ll bring things back home. In 2009, a young New Zealander named Jasmine Renata died in her sleep six months after receiving her last HPV injection. Her mother believed the vaccine killed her, as she was otherwise fit and healthy. However, forensic pathologist John Rutherford conducted an autopsy and found no evidence of any abnormal reaction related to the vaccine.

In a Stuff article covering Jasmine’s tragic death, University of Auckland vaccine researcher Helen Petousis-Harris was quoted as saying that there was “no reason to think for a minute that it was vaccine-related.” She also said, “… the hypotheses that people have put up have no basis in biological plausibility. That case has been around the world and the fact is, the girl died of unknown causes.”

I cannot stress enough that I don’t mean to be insensitive, brash, or arrogant; but to suggest that this young woman’s death was related to her vaccination despite the complete lack of evidence is a misappropriation of information.

With all the facts in mind, one asks how so many people could be against the vaccine. I believe there are two core reasons. Firstly, people are protective of their children. Hearsay, fake news, and pseudo-science being thrown about the internet and media will set off emotions and worry people. This is understandable.

The second reason is a know-it-all Kiwi attitude causing people to think they know better than rigorous academic studies and people who have devoted their careers to the topic. This is arrogant and ignorant. Unbacked opinions and beliefs should not trump facts, especially when it comes to lives. In New Zealand alone, 160 women develop cervical cancer each year, and 50 die from it.

Fear-mongering about vaccinations is ignorant and frankly unethical. Of course there is a small risk but it’s minimal, just as with all other vaccines we receive. The risk of HPV spreading unchecked is far worse. Vaccinate your kids against HPV.

Seventeen-year-old Nuku Tau (Ngāi Tahu, Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri) is a Year 13 student at Christ’s College.