Almost 90% of parents in England choose to vaccinate their daughters – and that means that most women between 15 and 25 years have received the vaccine.
When almost everyone is vaccinated, it’s not surprising that some people will get serious illnesses after vaccination – but that does not mean that the vaccine caused the illness.
But it’s easy to understand how they or their families might blame the vaccine. When an illness is unusual and poorly understood it can be particularly difficult to know what actually caused it.
A number of authorities, including the Centres for Disease Control in the USA, the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency have looked carefully at all the cases that have been reported and there is no evidence of a link between HPV vaccine and these chronic illnesses.
For example, the evidence they reviewed included detailed follow up of cases reported in Denmark, which showed that many of the girls affected had attended their doctors before vaccination, suggesting that their symptoms were not due to the vaccination.
Without vaccination, most people pick up an HPV infection soon after they start to have sex.
Many will clear the viruses harmlessly, but in a proportion they will persist, and can go on to cause cervical cancer.
The viruses also cause a number of other unpleasant cancers, and genital warts, which can very rarely be passed to the baby’s lung and will require life-saving surgery.
The viruses also cause pre-cancerous changes that cause anxiety and require treatment, even though in many women they would never have progressed to causing cancer. (They still need treating, because you don’t know which women will recover spontaneously, and which will get cancer.)
The vaccines reduce these pre-cancerous changes, so fewer women will need to be followed up and treated after screening.
HPV causes cancers that kill. Its victims often include young women in their prime.
My own daughter asked to have the vaccine, before the programme was introduced. As a GP I saw the anxiety caused by abnormal smear results, let alone a cancer diagnosis, so I was happy to arrange this for her.
You may remember Big Brother’s Jade Goody, or Jo Maxwell, of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. Both of them died of cervical cancer at the ages of 27 and 40 respectively.
They were unlucky, because the vaccine was not then available; but today’s young women have the opportunity to avoid this disease.
It is sad when somebody dies early from a preventable disease. It is particularly sad when they die unnecessarily as the result of an unfounded vaccine scare.
We’ve seen this happen several times, for example after whooping cough vaccine was mistakenly associated with brain damage in the 1970s and, more recently, following Wakefield’s notorious (and since retracted) Lancet article about MMR vaccine.
Don’t let’s let this happen again with cervical cancer!