Last month, Japanese health officials announced that they are no longer recommending widely used vaccines for cervical cancer, leading to renewed public debate in the U.S. and other countries over the use of Gardasil and other vaccines designed to protect young girls against human paillomavirus (HPV).
The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare began investigating reports of problems with prolonged pain and numbness among recipients of the vaccine, according to a report by the Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun.
While the ministry did not suspend HPV vaccinations, which are designed to prevent the spread of the sexually transmitted infection that is known to cause cervical cancer, it did tell local governments to cease promotion of the vaccines.
Safety concerns involving Gardasil were previously raised in the U.S. in 2009, when one of the lead researchers responsible for devloping the HPV vaccine, Dr. Diane Harper, indicated that that drug’s protection may only last a few years, suggesting that the risks may outweigh the benefits for young girls.
Dr. Harper reportedly said at a conference that while Gardasil was tested on 15 year old girls, it is commonly being given to girls as young as nine years old. She has called for more detailed warnings to parents about the Gardasil risks and to provide additional information about the unknown long-term benefits for girls who are not likely to be sexually active for several years.
Ongoing National Vaccine Debate
Over the last couple of years, Harper’s comments have been both conflated and downplayed by various groups as part of a larger debate on the safety of vaccinations, which are generally assumed to be necessary and effective.
Some groups have alleged that vaccines are sometimes unsafe and may lead to developmental problems, like autism, as well as injury, disfigurement and death in some even cases.
However, many health experts say that the risks are negligible and that the claims made by those concerned about vaccinations are often not scientifically supported. They also point to the benefits of what is known as “herd immunity” which occurs when a large enough portion of the population is vaccinated against a particular disease that they act as a firewall, preventing that disease’s spread even to those who are not vaccinated.
The National Cancer Institute has heralded the HPV vaccine, saying that widespread use could reduce cervical cancer deaths worldwide by as much as two-thirds. Many also suggest that men get the vaccine as well in order to promote herd immunity.
Japanese health officials grew concerned about HPV vaccinations following a report on 1,968 adverse event reports that included 106 cases of severe pain and convulsions.
An estimated 8.29 million Japanese had received the vaccination as of December 2012, which suggests that there could be more than 12.6 serious adverse events per 1 million vaccinations. Flu vaccines in Japan only have a rate of .09 serious adverse events per 1 million vaccinations.