So what is the Gardasil controversy about? How could a miracle drug aimed at preventing cervical cancer in young girls become the center of a medical controversy? Gardasil is a vaccine intended to prevent the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) which can lead to penis, anal and vaginal cancer, but most especially cervical cancer. The Gardasil vaccine came on the market in 2006 after the FDA approved its preventive use on girls aged nine through twenty-six. With 50% of all sexually active people in the United States expected to contract HPV at some point in their lives, a vaccine that could build an immune resistance to the virus was welcomed by the medical community. Since then, 25% of teenage girls in the United States have received the Gardasil vaccine as a preventive measure against cervical cancer. Since the vaccine is most effective if administered prior to the initiation of sexual relations, girls as young as nine years old have been vaccinated against HPV.
This tendency to vaccinate children against a sexually transmitted disease lies at the heart of the Gardasil controversy. According to Erin Brockovich (who became famous through the movie starring Julia Roberts), many parents are concerned that vaccinating young girls against sexually transmitted diseases may encourage promiscuity or the initiation of sexual relations early.
The Gardasil controversy may not have become so heated if many U.S. states had not mandated the administration of Gardasil to all girls residing in the state, taking the decision out of the hands of parents and guardians. In stark opposition, the state of Utah refused the Gardasil legislation and instead directed public awareness campaigns to assist in spreading the word regarding the causes and dangers of cervical cancer. Many religious affiliations that believe in strong family values join in stressing sexual abstinence before marriage and fidelity after as the only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted viruses.
Vaccines against German Measles (Rubella), which are given to teenage girls in some parts of the world to prevent retardation in infants during pregnancy, have not received the public scrutiny reserved for Gardasil, though both denote the possibility of sexual relations at an early age. In the US, children are vaccinated against Rubella at infancy and instances in which pregnant women have become infected with Rubella have nearly disappeared. The former director of the FDA Office of Women’s Health, Susan Wood, concedes that “the rush to get this [Gardasil vaccine] mandated immediately has done more harm to the issue” (reference 3).
The Gardasil controversy has become as much an issue of government intervention in parenting decisions as a fight to stop cervical cancer in teenage girls. Gardasil’s physical side effects may be minor, but the ethical questions it raises have stirred the concern of parents and educators alike. And yet, as with all vaccines, without general use of Gardasil, this sexually transmitted disease will continue to spread, posing a threat to sexually active individuals.