Debate rages over drug

NZ Herald August 31, 2008

A controversal anti-cancer vaccine to be given to 300,000 teenage girls starts this week amid criticism the project is a public experiment. The national human papillomavirus (HPV) immunisation programme will from tomorrow offer free vaccines of Gardasil to protect against the two major strains of the virus that cause cervical cancer. The Government has pledged $177 million to the five-year programme to give girls aged 12 to 18 three injections to combat HPV, which causes 70 per cent of cervical cancer. The disease kills about 65 women annually as another 180 are diagnosed.

Critics, including the researcher who helped develop Gardasil, have raised concerns about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, while wondering if it will encourage more young girls to be sexually active. …Auckland Women’s Health Council spokeswoman, Lynda Williams, was concerned that adequate information was not available for parents, children and doctors. Trials of Gardasil centred on 16- to 24-year-olds, as opposed to the younger age group targeted in New Zealand, said Williams. Diane Harper, a researcher who helped develop the vaccine at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth Medical School, said giving the vaccine to girls as young as 11 was “a great big public health experiment”.

Williams said there were too many unanswered questions for parents to be confident of the drug’s effectiveness. “This is a political decision,” she said. “So many decisions on women’s health issues have been made in the lead-up to an election and been rushed. If you’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a vaccine, there have to be more of these questions answered.”

Family First director Bob McCoskrie said more questions needed answers. “It seems we rushed in very quickly and committed a huge amount of money,” he said. “We can’t find the money for Herceptin, which you could argue may have as many question marks over the effectiveness of it, but we can pour this money into Gardasil.” Increasing promiscuity among young girls was another possible problem, but it was more important for parents to not be pressured into having their children vaccinated, said McCoskrie. “We all want a cure to it but we’ve also got to be realistic about what works best.”