Technology & Science

HPV vaccination plan should be halted, reviewed: researcher

The federal government's plan for a $300-million immunization campaign to prevent HPV, a virus that causes cervical cancer, should be halted until further study can be done, says a Canadian researcher.

The federal government's plan for a $300-million immunization campaign to prevent HPV,a virus that causes cervical cancer, should be halted until further study can be done, says a Canadian researcher.

"What's the rush? Why can't we get the information that we need first?" Abby Lippman, a professor in the department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Healthat McGill University in Montreal, told CBC News.

"There's a potential for unexpected effects, so why don't we get this information to make sure that we have a system in place that will really protect and promote women's health?"

Though she conceded "we will never have all of the answers," Lippman wants a thorough governmental review of the vaccine's safety, cost and uses before a large-scale immunization program is initiated.

And she suggested certain programs, such animmunization registry, be established to track patients, shouldthe first round of vaccinations prove ineffective and follow-up immunizations be warranted.

"Let's take the time and do this right," says Lippman.

Lippman's report, titled "Human papillomavirus, vaccines and women's health: questions and cautions," was publishedWednesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The article coincides with an announcementfrom Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty Thursday. Ontario plans to offer free HPV vaccinations to close to 85,000 teenaged girls in Ontario this fall.

Premier McGuinty is set to make the announcement this morning at Women's College Hospital in Toronto.

Ontario's $39-million program is part of the federal government's $300 million in funding forHPV vaccinations announced this spring.

Lippman said she's not sure why the government is pushing ahead with a costly vaccination program whenscientific evidence ofthe vaccine's efficiency and safety is lacking.

She says only 1,200 girlsaged 9 to 15 were enrolled in clinical trials ofMerck Frosst Canada Ltd.'s Gardasil, the vaccine selected by the federal government. The youngest were only tracked for 18 months.

"Clearly, this is a thin information base on which to construct a policy of mass vaccination for all girls aged 9 to 13," states the report.

As well, the vaccine is expensive, selling for $404 for the three required doses, said Lippman, and cost-effectiveness analyses of proposed vaccination programs needed to evaluate the expense are missing.

So why is the federal government paying for such a vaccination program?

"Some people are going to profit by this," said Lippman.

As well, shenoted thata new vaccine produced by GlaxoSmithKline, Cervarix,will be entering the market next year.

"Maybe that will be better for Canada. We don't know that," she said.

Cervical cancer not an epidemic

Lippmansaid women should be reminded that cervical cancer is "not an epidemic," leading to the deaths of approximately 400women a year — a number that is declining, according to the report.

It also notes thatcervical cancer isthe 11th-most frequent cancer affecting Canadian women and 13th-most common cause of cancer-related deaths.

As well, she said, HPV does not necessarily lead to cancer.

"Most HPV infections are cleared spontaneously, within one year for about 70 per cent of women and within two years for 90 per cent. Cervical cancer will not develop in most women who are infected with even a high-risk strain of HPV," said the report.

The article stated that women will also still have to use safe-sex practices, and get annual Pap smears that detect abnormal cervical cells that could signal cancer.

"The vaccine is nota magic bullet," said Lippman.