Fiona Kirby, a nurse from the small town of Kilbeggan in Ireland, wants her country to withdraw the license for an HPV vaccine because her daughter—and other children in her support group—allegedly suffered “horrendous adverse effects” after receiving it. Her tale is alarming, but her demands are dangerous ones rooted in absurd anti-vaccine pseudoscience.
As The Irish Times reports, Kirby has asked the Irish High Court to delicense Merck’s HPV vaccine Gardasil and to prevent the country’s Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) from using Gardasil in their vaccination programs. Ireland currently offers the HPV vaccine at no cost to girls in their first year of second-level school (ages 12-14). Cervarix, the only other licensed HPV vaccine in the country, is less comprehensive than Gardasil.
To put Kirby’s ridiculous request in perspective, she wants to remove an optional and free preventative measure recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and her country’s own Health Service Executive (HSE) from her entire country based solely on anecdotal data. But for anti-vaxxers, these tactics are necessary because science is not on their side. The HPV vaccine is safe, and unscientific testimony from concerned parents who draw their own conclusions is not going to change the facts.
Kirby’s support group, REGRET (Reaction and Effects of Gardasil in Extreme Trauma), suspects that Merck’s HPV vaccine Gardasil could be responsible for illnesses experienced by about 100 of their daughters. Kirby herself says that her daughter is now disabled after experiencing muscle wastage, fatigue, and pneumonia after the injection. Her story has since prompted another worldwide wave of HPV vaccine panic, which reached its peak of absurdity on Wednesday when Teen Vogue posed the alarmist question, “Can the HPV Vaccine Really Kill You?”
No, the HPV vaccine doesn’t kill people and even raising that possibility among an audience of teen girls is wildly irresponsible. It bears repeating that the HPV vaccine saves lives as because human papillomavirus (HPV) can lead to cervical cancer and cancers of the tongue and throat.
As the HSE notes, “No deaths have been attributed to Gardasil vaccination” and investigations
into “serious incidents” similar to the one reported by Kirby have “shown no causal relationship with the vaccine.” In the U.S., for example, the CDC has investigated all 51 sufficiently-detailed records of post-Gardasil deaths reported between June 2006 and September 2015, concluding in each case that “there is no diagnosis that would suggest Gardasil caused the death.”
In a statement, Merck told The Daily Beast that they first learned about the current litigation in Ireland “through the media” as the company is not a direct party in the case. Merck also cited the fact that several international health organizations recommend the HPV vaccine.
“We take this opportunity to reiterate Merck’s commitment to help prevent cervical cancer via a comprehensive approach of education, screening, and vaccination around the world,” the company said. “Merck stands strongly behind GARDASIL, which has been used by millions since approval in the United States in 2006, and in more than 100 countries around the world, after receiving regulatory review and approval by the relevant governments.”
Nearly 200 million doses of the vaccine have been distributed worldwide in the last 9 years. But despite the longstanding and safe use of Gardasil, REGRET is still suspicious of its presence in Ireland.
REGRET member Anna Cannon told The Daily Beast that her daughter was “a happy go lucky, very healthy, sporty, and active girl until the HPV vaccination” and now, she has “constant pains” and has been hospitalized for several illnesses including pancreatitis. Cannon alleges that she and other REGRET members were not fully informed of Gardasil’s side effects when they signed their parental consent forms, despite the fact that the HSE leaflet she forwarded to The Daily Beast contains an extensive section on side effects as well as a link to more information.
And besides, the rare side effects of Gardasil have little in common with some of the serious, long-lasting health issues described by members of REGRET, which include autoimmune conditions and memory loss.
What are the HPV vaccine’s side effects? As the HSE notes, hives are a rare side effect of Gardasil and bronchospasm, which can cause trouble breathing, is a very rare side effect. Merck also advises parents to contact a child’s doctor if they experience an array of symptoms including muscle weakness, joint pain, seizures, and stomach aches after the vaccination, but this type of warning is standard for many vaccines, and it does not necessarily mean that these symptoms are directly caused by to Gardasil or other vaccines.
(For instance, a 2014 study in Pediatrics suggests that “in most cases, genetic or structural defects are the underlying cause of epilepsy with onset after vaccination” among those who received common vaccines at an early age.)
The Daily Beast asked REGRET to provide peer-reviewed scientific research supporting the alleged connections between the HPV vaccine and the serious symptoms reportedly experienced by their daughters.
REGRET founder Martin Healy provided three articles from scholarly journals, two of which had the same lead author. The first in Vaccine examined a sample of 35 women who had developed symptoms after an HPV vaccination and did not determine a causal link.
A second examining the brain tissue of women who died from symptoms developed after HPV vaccination had a sample size of two and no control group. The journal in which this study appears is published by OMICS, a company that has been labeled "predatory" within the academic world for soliciting articles and then charging author fees.
The third had a sample of 39 and concluded “we can neither confirm nor dismiss a causal link between the vaccine and the disabling symptoms.” That article, too, appeared in a journal with a questionable publisher.
In lieu of credible research, posters on REGRET’s Facebook group can be seen sharing links from anti-vaccine media outlets and organizations like Health Impact News, The Council for Vaccine Safety, and SaneVax. Healy himself sent the Daily Beast several links to SaneVax.
The group’s unscientific anti-vaccine alarmism has already found some allies in the Irish legislature. In October, Senator Paschal Mooney called the symptoms reported by REGRET a “national disgrace” and claimed that Gardasil is having “a serious adverse effect on the lives of our young girls.” Mooney even cited the well-known anti-vaccine group SaneVax, which since thanked him for helping REGRET raise awareness of “the evil side of Gardasil.”
And this Tuesday, TD Maureen O’Sullivan called for an investigation into the vaccine, saying, “I must admit to being very wary of the pharmaceutical industry. I mean, whatever good they do, they are really a profit-making machine.”
Fortunately, Ireland’s Minister for Health Leo Varadkar is not ceding any ground to these anti-vaccine scare tactics. In response to O’Sullivan and other critics, Varadkar said, “I’m really very alarmed to hear that we’re getting into this space again where [O’Sullivan] is almost implying that there’s some sort of plot from the pharmaceutical industry against people and it’s all about them making money and this isn’t based on evidence or scientific advice.”
“Scares around people using medicines or vaccines really do cost lives,” he cautioned. “And any decisions that are based on this have to be based on the scientific facts and the epidemiological evidence, nothing else. And no meeting with me will change that.”