On Tuesday, I wrote about a British girl, Natalie Morton, who died shortly after receiving the HPV vaccine, Cervarix. Initial concerns were that the immunization caused the 14-year-old's death and possibly led the Food and Drug Administration to delay making its decision—which had been expected on Tuesday—on whether to approve Cervarix in the United States. Turns out, the girl probably died as a result of a malignant tumor in her heart and lungs, according to the coroner's report issued this morning. In a press conference, British public health official Caron Grainger said, "There's no indication that the HPV vaccine, which she had received shortly before her death, was a contributing factor to the death, which could have arisen at any point." The immunization programs for the human papillomavirus, which had been suspended in the girl's school and other schools in the Coventry region where she lived, will resume next week.
In response to my previous blog post, I received a number of comments from readers questioning whether even one death attributed to a vaccine was too many. Some said yes, and others said they were going to seriously reconsider getting it. I wonder now whether the latest news will instill more trust in this vaccine as well as Gardasil, the HPV vaccine being administered in this country. Certainly, there are some people who will continue to think all vaccines are dangerous and others who see no reason to question the safety of any vaccine. There are a large number of others, myself included, who believe firmly in vaccines but also would like as much information as possible about the risks and benefits of a particular immunization—especially a new one—before deciding whether to get it ourselves or for our children.
We're facing this with the vaccine coming out next week against H1N1 influenza. Pregnant women, specifically, are told that they should be first in line to get this vaccine because this flu virus has been particularly dangerous for them. About 6 percent of the people who have died from the infection since April have been pregnant women, a group that makes up only 1 percent of the population. On the other hand, the vaccine will have been tested in only about 100 pregnant women—hardly enough to know about any rare safety hazards. For its part, the government is taking safety risks seriously, saying that it's planning to monitor side effects as they occur through an active surveillance system that includes millions of people. Public-health officials are also trying to anticipate the possibility that pregnant women who get vaccinated and then have a miscarriage will blame the miscarriage on the vaccine. They're spreading the word that 2,400 miscarriages normally occur every day in this country, so immunized women who, unfortunately, have one shouldn't assume that it was caused by the vaccine.
It's certainly hard not to draw a connection between a bad health outcome and the immunization that preceded it. The best approach, as in Morton's case, is to raise the question and then gather as much information as possible before drawing a firm conclusion.