Planned Parenthood has kicked off a national initiative to promote use of the controversial Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in the minority media, even as investigators are trying to determine if the treatment cost a 12-year-old girl her life.
On July 30, Meredith Prohaska went to the doctor for a sore throat. While there, the doctor suggested that the preteen, who had just finished sixth grade at Butler Middle School, have the HPV vaccine.
Her mother, Rebecca, said the “vibrant” child became sleepy on the way home and dozed off most of the afternoon. Rebecca left at 3:30 that afternoon on an errand.
When she returned half-an-hour later, she found Meredith dead, near a pool of her own vomit, her lips purple.
An initial report about the death could not definitively state whether the shot caused the child's death, but her parents have no doubt. “The only thing different about that day was that shot,” Rebecca said. Her father, Mark Prohaska, agreed: “It has to be that vaccine.”
Only two days after Meredith's tragic death, Black Entertainment Television (BET) ran a news story telling its viewers that “to commemorate National Immunization Awareness Month, Planned Parenthood is encouraging parents to allow their kids as young as 11-12 to get vaccinated” with the HPV vaccine.
“As a doctor, I know how important recommendations are to parents when it comes to vaccines,” Dr. Vanessa Cullins, Planned Parenthood Federation of America's vice president of external medical affairs, told the minority-oriented media outlet. “Research continues to show that the HPV vaccine is safe and highly effective in preventing HPV-related cancers,” such as cervical cancer.
The article says receiving the vaccine is particularly important for African-Americans, since “Black folks are disproportionately affected by HPV.”
As part of its national media blitz, Planned Parenthood highlights that “only” 57 percent of teenage girls have had even one of the three injections that make up the HPV treatment, and that only one-third of girls have had all three. Seven percent of teenage boys have had the full treatment.
That is in part because parents and a growing number of experts are questioning whether the HPV vaccine, often marketed under the name Gardasil, is medically necessary and worth the potential side effects.
The CDC reports that its Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) “received approximately 25,000 adverse event reports” of side effects from the girls and young women who had the vaccination. Eight percent of girls experienced “serious” side effects, ranging from infertility to death.
Between June 2006 and March 2014, the CDC received 96 reports of deaths related to the shot, 47 of which were verified. The number includes at least two girls who died of Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) after receiving the injection.
The problem is not confined to the United States. Fourteen-year-old Annabelle Morin died on December 9, 2008, in Quebec after receiving the Gardasil vaccine.
Nor is death the only serious side effect. An Australian girl, 16, became sterile after her HPV shot.
As a result of these pervasive health concerns, the nation of Japan removed its recommendation that young people get the vaccine last year.
Even those who worked on the development of the vaccine now say it may be unnecessary. Dr. Diane Harper of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, who worked on the tests to get Gardasil approved, says, “Ninety-five percent of women who are infected with HPV never, ever get cervical cancer.”
“It seemed very odd to be mandating something for which 95 percent of infections never amount to anything,” she said. She prefers using pap smears to determine the possibility of cervical cancer.
She also noted that the vaccine as currently administered lasts only four to five years, so administering it to a nine-year-old will likely have no effect on her sexual health as a teenager.
That makes public interest advocates question why the HPV vaccine is being so heavily promoted. Both the progressive organization Public Citizen and conservative watchdog Judicial Watch have investigated potentially unscrupulous lobbying by the medical industry.
But Planned Parenthood also has a financial stake in promoting Gardasil's use. A total of 550 of its 700 facilities administer the shot. According to its website, “Each dose can cost up to about $170, so all three shots may cost about $500.” Despite the cost, Planned Parenthood performed almost 40,000 HPV vaccinations in 2012 alone.
That number may increase, thanks to the Obama administration. This month Planned Parenthood officials praised provisions of ObamaCare that finance their promotion of the vaccine.
“Thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s preventive health benefits, more young people will have access to routine HPV vaccinations without their parents having to pay out of pocket or co-pays,” said Judy Tabar President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. “This benefit helps make the vaccine accessible and affordable for millions of families.”
And they again promoted the importance of vaccinating children. “Medical and scientific experts agree that the vaccine is most effective when it is administered early, in part because the full vaccine has to be administered prior to any possible exposure,” said Dr. Timothy Spurrell, Medical Director of PPSNE.
Planned Parenthood's website notes that the “HPV vaccine is recommended for males and females ages 9-26.”
The vaccine's defenders say it does more good than harm, and that effects such as death as a one-in-a-million occurrence. But Rebecca and Mark Prohaska say they wish they had known they could lose their little girl to a routine injection.
They are now awaiting the results of a more in-depth biological analysis to determine once-and-for-all that the HPV vaccine caused Meredith's death last month. In the meantime, they wait and mourn.
“Everywhere I go, everything I do – I see her,” Rebecca said.