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Flowers hang on the gate of Blue Coat Church of England School in Coventry, England, on Tuesday, after a pupil from the school died Monday after receiving the Cervarix vaccination for HPV. ((Rui Vieira/PA/Associated Press) )

Health authorities in Britain are investigating after a 14-year-old girl died a few hours after she was vaccinated against a virus that causes cervical cancer.

Natalie Morton died in a hospital shortly after receiving the Cervarix vaccine at her school in Coventry, about 160 kilometres northwest of London. The injection protects against two strains of the human papilloma virus that cause cervical cancer.

Caron Grainger, director for public health at Coventry city council, said an autopsy will be conducted to investigate if the vaccine played any role in Morton's death.

Health officials said Tuesday the batch of vaccine administered at the school has been quarantined for two days. A number of other girls at the school reported mild symptoms such as dizziness and nausea after receiving the shot.

"What we don't know at this stage is whether her sad death and her feeling unwell is in any way connected to the immunization itself," said Mike Attwood of the public health department in Coventry.

"That's what we rapidly need to determine and we're going on an investigation to bottom that out as soon as we can."

'Tragic consequences' in rare cases

Another vaccine against the cervical cancer virus is routinely administered to teenage girls in Europe and North America, with no major safety concerns reported before.

"As with any medical intervention … one can, on rare occasions, see tragic consequences," said Prof. Malcolm McCrae, virologist at the University of Warwick.

"But overall this is an extremely well-tested vaccine which has been produced in response to a critical health issue — cervical cancer — a disease responsible for almost 1,000 deaths annually in the U.K."

Since Britain's National Health Service began offering the Cervarix vaccine to teenage girls 18 months ago, 1.4 million doses have been administered. There have been about 2,000 adverse reactions, mostly very mild in nature, said Grainger.

The medical director at GlaxoSmithKline UK, which manufactures Cervarix, said the company is working with health authorities to investigate the case.

The majority of suspected reactions to the Ceravix vaccine so far have related "either to the signs and symptoms of recognized side-effects listed in the product information or were due to the injection process and not the vaccine itself," the company said.

Controversy over teenage vaccinations

The voluntary immunization program for teenage girls has been controversial in Britain since it began in 2008 because of suggestions that it would encourage younger girls to be sexually active, since HPV is spread through sexual contact.

A different vaccine, called Gardasil, has been approved for use in Canada to prevent HPV infection caused by four types of the virus in females aged nine to 26. Health Canada is reviewing an application to approve Cervarix for use in Canada, where it is currently not used.

In August, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the first 23 million doses of Gardasil that have been given in the U.S. Researchers concluded most of the serious adverse events, including death, were no greater than background rates for other vaccines. But a disproportionate number of reports of fainting were found with Gardasil, the team said.

About 1.5 million doses of Gardasil have been given in Canada, where reports of adverse events linked to the vaccine were not available.

Adverse event reports do not show a vaccine or some other factor caused problems or deaths, only that they occurred after receiving a vaccine. Reactions can occur to the active ingredients in vaccines, the preservatives or for other reasons.

An estimated 1,350 women in Canada are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually, while about 400 women die of cervical cancer a year.

The immunization against HPV has also met with resistance in some school boards across the country.

Earlier in September, Yellowknife's Catholic school board voted not to allow the vaccinations to be administered through its schools. The decision followed a debate on whether ensuring girls get the vaccine should be the responsibility of parents or schools.

Corrections

  • The original article incorrectly stated about 1,300 women contract HPV a year in Canada. In fact about 1,350 women in Canada are diagnosed with cervical cancer a year.
    Sep 29, 2009 9:25 AM ET
With files from The Associated Press