Japan stops cancer vaccines as World Health Organization put in sharp focus

By Kamau Kaniaru

Japanese government has withdrawn administration of vaccines against Human Papillomavirus (HPV) in Kitui as the World Health Organisation (WHO) faces stinging criticism. Japan has cited adverse effects including infertility, long-term pain, numbness and paralysis.

The vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, were being given to schoolgirls aged between 11 and 14 in Kitui.

Four strains of the HPV, out of more than 100 types, are associated with cervical cancer although there has never been conclusive proof of a link between HPV infection and development of cervical cancer.

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In effect, the Japanese ministry of Health is saying quite categorically that it has no faith in Gardasil and Cervarix. In contrast, Kenya’s ministry of Health says the same HPV vaccines are safe and effective.  

The Japanese government has advised local authorities to stop promoting vaccination of girls with Gardasil and Cervarix until more studies are conducted.

Gardasil is manufactured by America’s Merck Sharp & Dohme (Merck & Co) while Cervarix is manufactured by Britain’s GlaxoSmithKline PLC. While the vaccines will remain freely available in the country, Japanese medical institutions are now required by law to inform young girls or their parents that the government does not recommend the vaccines any longer because of their associated adverse effects.

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The Japanese Ministry of Health has appointed a task force to investigate some 2,000 adverse incidents and to report on the vaccines’ safety. Essentially, the health ministry’s advisory is as good as a revocation of the government’s support for the vaccines.  Unlike Kenya, the Japanese have an extremely low fertility rate, with the population literally declining and anything that poses any threat to their fertility is likely to cause alarm bells to ring.  While Kenya’s fertility rate is one of the highest in the world, such potential threats to fertility should not be overlooked, particularly because the vaccines are not expected to have such outcomes.  

This puts Japan in contrast with the position taken by the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO endorses the HPV vaccines’ efficacy and say they are useful tools for preventing cervical cancer. Indeed, critics have accused the WHO of promoting the vaccines to benefit the manufacturers.  The same criticism has been leveled against the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

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Merck’s Gardasil was licensed by the FDA in 2006 while GlaxoSmithKline’s Cervarix entered the market in 2007. Critics argue the vaccines have not been in the market long enough to provide conclusive proof they can prevent cervical cancer.

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