Is D.C.’s HPV Vaccine Mandate a Mistake?


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Christina Tarsell

Last April, as Emily Tarsell began her trek back to Northern Maryland following her testimony before the D.C. Council, she said, “I came down to try to support the families in Washington to be more aware of the [possible] adverse side effects of [the Human Papillomavirus vacine] Gardasil and to advocate for removing the mandatory requirement for vaccination.”

Legislation passed by the D.C. Council in 2007 mandates that girls receive the HPV vaccine prior to entering sixth grade. The District of Columbia and Virginia are the only two states to mandate the HPV vaccine, which some believe may prevent cervical cancer. Friday, Virginia’s House of Delegates voted 61-33 to drop the state’s mandate. The Washington Post noted, “[T]he House’s strong rejection of the mandated vaccine, just four years after it was approved overwhelmingly in the same chamber, is a sign of public uneasiness with HPV vaccination.” The bill now faces an uphill battle in the Virginia State Senate.

Uneasiness with the HPV vaccine may not be limited to Virginia. The Washington Post reported, “Since vaccine mandates were enacted in the District and Virginia, the rates of parents choosing to opt-out has been extremely high in both areas. In Virginia, just 17.3 percent of all eligible girls had received the first of three vaccinations, as envisioned by the law, at the start of the school year. Only 23 percent of this year’s eligible sixth-graders in the District have received the vaccine.” Monday, WAMU 88.5 FM reported, “Only 8 percent of sixth- and seventh-grade girls in D.C. Public Schools have completed the series of Human Papillomavirus vaccine shots. That’s despite a law requiring students to get the vaccine unless parents sign a refusal form.”

The District’s HPV vaccine mandate was championed by At-large Councilmember David Catania, who chairs the Health Committee. Testifying before Mr. Catania, Emily Tarsell described how her only daughter became increasingly ill after her second and third shots of the HPV vaccine. Eighteen days after her third and final injection of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine produced by the pharmaceutical giant Merck, Christina Tarsell died in her sleep.

After testifying, Emily Tarsell said, “[Christina] was an athlete. She played tennis in college. She was 20 years old and a junior at Bard College, she was majoring in fine arts and philosophy, and she was just a wonderful person, great friend, caring citizen, the light of my life, my only child. I can’t believe she’s not here.”

“She was indifferent to getting the vaccine,” Tarsell said. “Two years ago, she had her first GYN appointment and the doctors there were advocating that she receive the vaccination. They were telling us that it was safe and that it would prevent cervical cancer. That is the only information we had. And then, because we’ve had cancer in the family, not cervical caner, but vaious kinds of cancers, I think we were vulnerable to the suggestion that there was a vaccine to prevent cancer. And so without actually further investigating, and going by the doctor’s recommendation, she got the vaccine.”

Tarsell continued, “[Christina] began to develop symptoms, but because we weren’t told that there were any adverse side effects, we did not know that she should not continue with the vaccinations and after the third vaccination, 18 days later, she died. It was only in retrospect, after some time had gone by… after her autopsy in which they could not determine a cause for death… that we began to investigate.”

According to Tarsell, there is no test to determine whether Gardasil might be the cause of death. Undeterred, Tarsell pushed forward. “I was able to connect with other parents and we shared autopsy reports and we began to see that there were patterns and that they had symptoms in common. And these other girls didn’t know either, their families didn’t know. Since that time, Merck has slowly been changing the package inserts, adding more and more symptoms to the warning on the insert. But citizens are not still informed of those and doctors aren’t telling you when you go – you don’t see the package insert when you go for a vaccination.”

“But the bottom line is, whether you believe that these adverse events are related to the vaccine or not, there actually are better ways to prevent cervical cancer that are non-invasive. And we didn’t know that. No one explained that to us. No one told us that you’d have to have annual pap tests anyway, even with the vaccine, and that that’s the best way to prevent cervical cancer because if you pick it up, it’s treatable. So your chances of dying of cervical cancer are very low. The risk of having an adverse event in relation to the vaccine, a serious adverse event, is greater than your risk of dying of cervical cancer. And if anyone had explained those risk/benefts to us, we would have declined the shots and she would be here.”

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