We are writing to share our concerns about the HPV vaccination campaign that the Guyana Ministry of Public Health has once again re-launched, specifically targeting pre-teen schoolgirls.
First of all, please know that we are knowledgeable about the Gardasil vaccine and included among the signatories to this letter is a public health professional. All of us have a great and abiding commitment to the health, empowerment, and rights of women and children.
Our objection to this campaign and vaccine stems not from a lack of caring about persons’ health; on the contrary- it is precisely because we are greatly concerned about the wellbeing of women and children in Guyana that we are urging that a stop be put to it.
There are significant harmful side effects from the vaccine that parents of girl children need to be made aware of- data that the MoPH has not shared nor adequately educated parents about. The MoPH has built this campaign around people’s fear of cancer and without any proper public consultation or discussion about the risks of the vaccine. We believe that women and girls must be provided with all the available information so they can be empowered to make the best decision for themselves and their families- not just be browbeaten and bamboozled by the authorities or those who seem to have more knowledge than they do.
Finally, we believe that promoting regular sexual health checkups and cancer screenings such as PAP smears and VIA testing (which have no harmful side effects) is a far more efficient and effective use of the scarce resources of the MoPH and would have a greater long term impact in preventing and reducing cervical cancer among Guyanese women. We urge the MoPH to dedicate its efforts and attention to that front instead and would willingly work with them at such time.
Listed below are some specific concerns about HPV and Gardasil that we urge you to review and share, especially with parents of pre-teen and teenage girl children, so that all may become better informed and more able to make a good decision about safeguarding the health of their children. Do note that all this data is from highly reputable, scientifically accurate sources (references are included so that you may check for yourself).
- Most HPV infections go away on their own, without treatment, and do not result in cancer. In the United States, where the prevalence of HPV infection is significantly higher than in Guyana, only about 3.4% of all HPV viruses were associated with cervical cancer.
- Cervical cancer is one of the most easily detected and treated cancers. Regular screening- either by PAP smear or VIA testing- is extremely effective at detecting pre-cancerous growths which can then be destroyed before they become cancerous. Notably, VIA testing just uses vinegar; it is a simple test that doesn’t require a lot of training to do or interpret, making it particularly suitable for use in under-resourced regions of Guyana.
- According to the American Cancer Society- when caught early, the survival rate for women with cervical cancer is 93%. In addition, the World Health Organization notes that early treatment programmes in developed countries prevents up to 80% of cervical cancers.
- Gardasil contains genetically engineered virus-like particles as well as aluminum, which have been proven to negatively affect immune functioning. Furthermore- according to the vaccine manufacturer product information insert- Gardasil has not been evaluated for carcinogenicity or genotoxicity. What this means therefore is that the possibility exists that this vaccine itself could cause cancer! This cannot be known yet though; many years have to pass first. As such, we recommend that a precautionary approach be followed and use of this vaccine be stopped immediately, especially since there are effective and efficient screening methods that have no side effects.
- The Japanese Health Ministry stopped recommending Gardasil vaccination for their citizens since 2013 and continues to maintain this position. In addition, the US government has paid nearly US$6M in compensation to persons and families whose loved ones suffered serious side effects from this HPV vaccine.
- The cost of this vaccine in Canada is about CDN$405 per recipient. The Guyanese government has stated that it is aiming to distribute approximately 40,000 doses of this vaccine across Guyana. We question where the funding for this vaccination campaign has come from and ask the MoPH to provide data showing if spending money on this vaccine is more cost-effective than funding regular cervical cancer screening programmes. As we said earlier, it is our contention that it would be a better and more sensible use of our scarce public health resources to strengthen cervical cancer screening programmes throughout Guyana- especially in the hinterland regions which are consistently under-resourced- instead of promoting mass vaccination.
- The HPV vaccine can have numerous harmful side effects including vomiting, dizziness, swollen glands, shortness of breath, chest pain, aching muscles, and prolonged muscle weakness. There have also been cases of women and girls suffering paralysis and death after receiving this vaccine. Please note that we have not said that these side effects are inevitable but the information needs to be shared with parents so that they can weigh the risks and benefits for themselves and not be misled into giving permission for their young children to receive this vaccine without knowing the serious side effects it could cause.
- Because of the lack of information about side effects overall, as well as the specific lack of this information in indigenous languages, if girls in the Guyanese hinterland- a special target area of this campaign- get sick from this vaccine, it is unlikely that they will receive proper emergency attention and care.
In conclusion, given the lack of public education and consultation, this campaign to administer Gardasil to pre-teen and teenage Guyanese children is a violation of the Rights of the Child Convention. We urge all Guyanese parents to join us in calling on the MoPH to:
- Stop the nationwide HPV vaccination campaign immediately;
- Launch a national public awareness exercise to inform pre-teen and teenage girls and their parents of all the vaccine risks and side effects so that they can make more informed decisions;
- Conduct ongoing national public education campaigns to highlight the importance of all sexually active Guyanese women obtaining regular PAP smears or VIA testing as the most effective way to prevent cervical cancer;
- Ensure that healthcare facilities in all regions of Guyana are always equipped with skilled staff and materials needed to conduct and interpret cervical cancer screening using PAP smears and/or VIA testing;
- Implement comprehensive sexuality education in all schools nationwide so that Guyanese youth are better informed about sexual health and the functioning of their bodies, and gain the necessary skills to communicate openly, honestly, and non-judgmentally with their peers, partners, parents, and healthcare providers about safer sex, consent, and other related topics.
If anyone would like to speak with us directly or have us come and discuss this information further with any group or organization, we can be reached thusly: 653-3734; 223-6254.
Sherlina Nageer, MPH