Oct 2, 2007

Cervical Cancer: Girl Clumsy Says No

This morning I received my second jab of a medical wonder - Gardisil, the cervical cancer vaccine.

Thanks to Queensland's own Professor Ian Frazer and a very smart and no doubt good-looking bunch of UQ scientists, we now have a vaccine that provides 100 per cent protection against the strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV) that cause 70 per cent of all cervical cancers. This is an incredible achievement - a vaccine that prevents CANCER. How bloody marvellous is that?

I paid $150 for my first shot of Gardisil in August, because the law was you could have the vaccine provided for free only if you could have all three boosters BEFORE you turn 27. However, due to numerous complaints, they've now changed that - so as long as you can get your first shot in before your 27th birthday, you'll get the full course for the bargain price of ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. So bingo, my second two injections cost zilch, zip, nada, nothing - courtesy of the Australian Goverment.

Coincidentally, Gardisil has made the news again recently, with federal Health Minister Tony Abbott revealing one in five teenage girls have not received the vaccine because of parental concerns. The main reasons behind this reluctance seem to be a) they fear side effects b)they don't trust pharmaceutical companies and c) they fear the vaccine would encourage their daughters to become promiscious.

Now even Professor Ian Frazer himself has said it is a family's right to choose whether they want the vaccine for their daughters or not. Having researched the vaccine, I believe the scientific evidence is there to back up its effectiveness. I also look at the success vaccinations for influenza, measles, diptheria, hepatitis, smallpox, polio and a host of other diseases have been. We don't have smallpox at all anymore, and polio is on the verge of being eradicated. Our world is a healthier place thanks to scientific and medical advances. But, it is a family's right to choose - even if I vehemently object to their choice (how do you politely call someone "stupid"?). In terms of side effects I have suffered nothing worse than a sensitive arm around the entry point - just like any other needle.

As far as drug companies go - that's a trickier nut to crack. Yes, they're no doubt out to make money. They have shareholders, and a bottom line. But we live in a capitalist world, and until governments take over all medicinal research and manufacture, that's just something we have to live with. And think about it - it's in their financial interests to create drugs that work, with as few side effects as possible. Besides, we are very fortunate in Australia that the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme covers a wide range of drugs, providing them to citizens for far less than the government pays for them. The United States is more of a basketcase when it comes to costs of medicines. But we're not there yet, and with public support for the PBS, we never will be.

As to the final argument - words cannot express the rage I feel upon hearing this. What utter GARBAGE. If I thought about the risks of sex at all as a teenager (when I finally got a clue as to what it was all about), they were pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Cervical cancer didn't even factor into the deal. I had no idea what it was all about until I began having pap smears in my late teens.

I can understand it might be awkward for parents to have to discuss the reasons why Gardisil is a good idea. After all, no parent really wants 13-year-old Susie to go out and get it on. But I think it's a great opportunity to further educate kids about sex. Kids need to know that with the right person at the right time, sex is a wonderful human experience. But it also involves issues of emotional and physical health. Teenagers can be clueless enough as it is - giving them more information is a GOOD thing, not a bad thing. And research has shown teens are going to have sex no matter what you say - wouldn't it be good to at least have the knowledge that their chances of contracting HPV are lower because they've been vaccinated against it?

I'm in a very low-risk category when it comes to cervical cancer. I failed to "put it about a bit" during my teens and early twenties (the high-risk age groups) and I'm in a monogamous relationship. Given my family history, a bowel cancer vaccine would be far more useful. And granted, if I get cervical cancer in years to come that's caused by the strains Gardisil doesn't protect against, then yes, I'll probably be pretty pissed off. But you know what? Any vaccine, that affords me effective protection against a cancer risk - no matter how small - is worth it.

I've mentioned to a few female friends of mine under 27 that the vaccine is out there and its available to them. I've been amazed to hear reactions including "I don't like needles" or "Doesn't it have side effects?". My plea then, is to all women under 27. Seriously consider Gardisil. Don't let an an opportunity like this pass you by. The government is set to scale back its free vaccination program to 12-13 year-olds only in mid-2009. After that you'll have to pay for if you want it. As I said earlier, I was prepared to pay - but why wait when you can get a freebie now?

Over 30s - you can still purchase a different form of the vaccine called Cervarix. Again, you have to pay for it. At $150 a shot, it's not cheap. But you can get some back if you have private health insurance, and given this time of economic prosperity, it's probably a good time to invest in your health - even if it's at the expense of a new frock or pair of shoes.

Health Minister Tony Abbott is a rampaging Catholic and nowhere close to being my favourite person. But he's earned my respect by pleading with parents to get their girls vaccinated. Even Mr Abbott - a fervent moralist and right-to-lifer - doesn't buy the "Gardisil encourages promiscuity"argument. For that he earns my respect.



  1. The Australian Government has recently introduced "The National Bowel Screening Program".

    No matter what the disease, most often, prevention is the best cure.
    This is particularly directed to the male readers here, but for all, annual physical and mental health checkups are a must.

    Kudos to you for promoting a sensible approach to women's health issues. The parents who mistakenly believe they would be sending a wrong message (promiscuity is ok?)to their daughters in allowing the injections, need to get out more.

    Now, if only everyone would take some time, pay attention to, understand and become familiar with Suicide Prevention Strategies.
    There's the silent killer.

  2. [warning: soapbox activated]

    All vaccinations and prophylactic preventatives are still based on a numerical calcualtion of odds...

    I do not buy the argument that "aren't there side effects that may effect 1 in 1 000 000 and cause significant imparement in 1 in 1 000 000!!!

    The risk is that diseases that we should have had eradicated are on an increase. In India, Niger, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Nigeria new cases were being reported in 2003. With the freedom of movement of travellers in a swift manner, what will happen if, perchance polio breaks out here where the percentage of unimmunised children is rising every year.

    Hugh Banney, an aquaintance of mine and a member of the Post Polio Support Group, laments the rising numbers of unprotected kids/adults in todays world. He may have beaten polio in his youth, but it still beat the crap out of him, and in later life its effects have retuned to but him in the butt.. It is more than just beating an infection, it is about his quality of life.

    I have just spent a bit of time looking over the "anti-immunisation" sites ont he web and there are hundreds and hundreds of them... My overall impression of them is that they are emotive codswallop with wery little of it having any credible analytical basis.

    Bottom line is that if one wants a reason to not do the immunisation thing, then one will find a way to validate their opinion, BUT with being part of a modern society is responsibility. Part of that responsibility is the collective need to minimise preventable disease, as everyone unprotected forms part of the niche that may be the foothold for complacency and the epidemics of the future!

    [soapbox deactivated]

  3. Cervical cancer can be prevented through the vaccine.