Reality Check for HPV Vaccine: Allergic Reactions and More

Newfound side effects raise concerns about a shot once hailed as a coup against cervical cancer.

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When the first human papilloma virus or HPV vaccine was approved two years ago to protect against the virus that causes cervical cancer, gynecologists hailed it as a major breakthrough. At my own annual checkup last week, my gynecologist told me that she's seeing significantly fewer abnormal Pap smears, probably because her patients have been getting vaccinated. Many women, though, are opting not to get themselves or their preteen daughters vaccinated after reports have been trickling out concerning possible side effects. A study out today, for example, shows that the Gardasil vaccine causes a higher rate of allergic reactions, such as nausea, rashes, and difficulty breathing, than do other vaccines given at younger ages. Though the overall risk is quite small—far less than 1 percent—doctors should still be on guard for these warning signs, the study researchers say, because they can become life threatening if not treated.

Two months ago, I blogged about a teen who, after getting Gardasil, developed severe paralysis, which may or may not have been linked to the vaccine. I received a slew of comments from readers wondering if their daughters' or their own health problems had been caused by the vaccine. One mother told me her daughter developed seizures, while a 15-year-old wrote me that within one month of getting her last shot, she developed headaches, aching joints, and flulike symptoms that haven't gone away. An emergency room nurse E-mailed me that she had a series of allergic reactions to her shots and now has so much joint paint and tiredness, she has had to take a desk job. No one knows whether there's a cause-and-effect relationship here, but some leading experts are beginning to wonder why this new vaccine was adopted so quickly into general practice, particularly in young girls who may not become sexually active for years.

Pediatrician Catherine DeAngelis, who is editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association, tells me that while she thinks the vaccine makes sense for sexually active single women, it's absolutely ludicrous to give it to 11- and 12-year-olds (as federal guidelines recommend) since the vaccine may not last long enough to protect them when they start dating. "This may be absolutely the wrong time to give it," she says. "And what are the risks? We won't know until it's given to millions of women."

So how should you decide whether the vaccine is right for you or your daughter? Here are five things to consider.