Op-Ed: HPV vaccines are safe, all children should be immunized with it

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(Below is a commentary by a former Health Minister under the People’s Progressive Party/Civic administration, Dr Leslie Ramsammy)

Dr Leslie Ramsammy

The Ministry of Health in Guyana is on safe, strong ground in its program to ensure that all girls and boys are immunized with the HPV vaccine. It is a necessary public health response and the Ministry will do a service to our children and to the overall fight against cancer in our country, particularly cervical cancer. Make no mistake, HPV vaccines will lead to a lower incidence of cervical and other cancers in the adults of the next generation. Guyana has a track record with this vaccine. We have safely used it since 2009, when I first introduced its use among young girls, 9 -11 years old.

I have been patient, painfully patient, waiting for the Ministers of Health or their Chief Medical Officer and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to respond to a very reckless letter published in a number of newspapers and carried widely through social media calling for the withdrawing of the HPV vaccine. I did not want to be the lead person to respond because I am aware that some people might have seen my response with political lens. HPV and cervical cancers are public health threats and the HPV vaccine is one of the effective tools to combat cervical cancers.

While the Ministry of Public Health and PAHO have chosen silence, I am encouraged that a number of professionals, including some young doctors, stepped up to respond in a very professional and clear manner, debunking the irresponsible position taken by a number of Guyanese. I will not repeat the facts they outlined. I will simply ask that Guyanese support fully the 100 per cent HPV vaccine coverage for our children.

The scientific evidence is impressive supporting both the safety and efficacy of the HPV vaccine. It is now more than a decade since the introduction of this vaccine and millions of children in virtually every country have now been immunized against the Human Papilloma Virus, a virus that is the main cause of cervical cancer. This virus is also one of the causative agents for a number of other cancers, such as breast cancer.

When I advocated for and introduced HPV in Guyana in 2009, I presented evidence that the HPV vaccine is safe and will reduce future incidences of cervical cancer among women in Guyana in the years to come.

Since then I have become an even more ardent advocate for the HPV vaccine because the evidence is now even stronger that the virus is linked to the overwhelming majority of cervical cancer and that HPV vaccine can be a major barrier against this cancer in the generations to come.

The vast majority of children who receive the vaccine experience no side effects. There are some side effects in a small percentage of people. None of these side effects are life-threatening. These side effects include dizziness, fainting, nausea, headache and fever. All of these are side effects that a small percentage of people will experience, even with taking aspirin or eating certain popular foods. A larger percentage of people suffer from worse side effects by simply being exposed to second hand smoke or by taking an alcohol drink.

As I have said thousands of times, there are no debates about vaccines, and certainly none about the safety and efficacy of HPV vaccine. Real science, by real scientists, published in real medical journals, and reviewed by experts in epidemiology, virology, infectious diseases, cancer, and other biomedical researchers, verify both the safety and effectiveness of HPV vaccines.

There will always be naysayers. For sure there is a small number of people who are anti-vaxxers, against HPV vaccines and all vaccines. Many of these same people doubt the evidence that climate change is real.

Every year brings 528,000 new cases of cervical cancer and 266,000 deaths, linked to human papillomavirus (HPV). We have a highly effective HPV vaccine. Science published in Journals such as Nature, Science, New England Journal of Medicine, the British Medical Journal and others have published impressive research results testifying to the effectiveness of the HPV vaccines. Importantly, after just over a decade of use in countries like the US, Canada, Europe, evidence is now mounting that HPV prevalence in young women have began to decline.

It would be a colossal mistake for the Ministry of Health to stop this program. It is a colossal mistake that the Ministry of Health has allowed this disinformation to simmer for so long without responding. By using vaccines, we no longer have smallpox, rubella, whooping cough etc. Similarly, I expect that in the decades to come we will see a reduction in cervical and other cancers because we had the strength and the will to introduce and use the HPV vaccine.

 

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