Researchers Question If HPV Vaccine Is Worth the Risk

Doctors are questioning if the benefits of Gardasil outweigh the risks.

ByABC News
August 20, 2008, 4:24 PM

Aug. 20, 2008 — -- Sonya Sheehan's daughters are the picture of health, and she wants to keep it that way. As a nurse, Sheehan had her older daughter inoculated with Gardasil, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. She plans to give the shot to her 6-year-old in a few years, to protect her against cervical cancer.

Most medical organizations have strongly advocated using the HPV vaccine for girls 11 and 12 years old.

Merck, the maker of the vaccine, launched a massive and carefully targeted marketing campaign, where young women stand before the camera and declare with confidence, "I could be one less," woman to die of cervical cancer.

The commercials have caught the attention of parents, and in just two years, more than 8 million young women have been given a Gardasil shot.

Dr. Nathan Litman, Director of Inpatient Pediatrics at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, considers Gardasil a medical breakthrough.

"This vaccine should be able to prevent about 70 percent of cervical cancer," he said.

But, an editorial to be published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday outlined some serious concerns about the vaccine.

First, Gardasil's long-term effectiveness is unclear. Because cervical cancer takes years to develop, critics say the current information is insufficient to determine whether Gardasil works.

"The overall effect of the vaccines on cervical cancer remains unknown," Dr. Carolyn J. Haug, the Journal of Norwegian Medical Association's editor, wrote in the New England Journal editorial. "The real impact of HPV vaccination on cervical cancer will not be observable for decades."

Gardasil is also expensive, costing about $400 to $1,000 for the necessary three doses of the vaccine. Studies have not proven how long the immunity will last and whether or not additional shots will be needed, which would raise the cost even higher.

And it's not a slam dunk. The vaccine only protects against some of the viruses that cause cervical cancer, so women still need regular pap screenings. And some doctors said that a traditional pap screen may be more effective.