Gardasil is such a controversial and flawed vaccine that it seems as if many people can think of it only as a much-hyped profit center for Merck.
But 27 year-old British celebrity Jade Goody’s death of cervical cancer on Sunday, Mother’s Day in Britain, reminds us that yeah, cervical cancer can kill. If an HPV infection is NOT shrugged off, as most are, and you don’t get an annual Pap smear to find pre-cancerous lesions early, then it can eventually kill. And we should take it seriously.
Which is why researchers probably saw the Gardasil vaccine as the Grail—regardless of what Merck did with it afterwards, by fast-tracking it to approval and marketing it aggressively; whatever your feelings about Gardasil, we have to give researchers credit.
Jade Goody was a dental assistant when she soared to fame on the reality TV show Big Brother which endlessly films contestants corralled in a house for weeks at a time. Born to drug-addicted and impoverished parents she was brash, ignorant, and opinionated, soon becoming notorious for malapropisms such as "They were trying to use me as an escape goat."
But her survivor nature won her many fans, and perversely, she soon became a celebrity just for being a celebrity. There was one hell of a row when she put a racist slant on bullying during the filming of a follow-up Celebrity Big Brother, calling Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty “Shilpa Poppadum” and snickering at her accent. Mixed race herself, though, she not unreasonably explained that “I treat everyone like that.” The two made it up, and in fact Goody learned about her cancer on camera during the filming of an Indian Big Brother.
Her disease progressed in the glare of camera flashes. She was criticized roundly for selling her life, including the rights to film her fantasy wedding to fiancé Jack Tweed while she was dying: she answered that she was storing up as much money as possible for her two young sons so that they would never live as she did as a child.
Goody did a great deal in Britain to highlight the need for regular exams. Although cervical cancer is not prevalent—in the US it ranks 14th on the list of cancers—and it rarely presents itself in young women, serious lesions resulting from persistent HPV infection do appear to be increasing. In Britain the highest grade of pre-cancerous change, CIN3, in 20-24 year-olds has risen from 15.8 percent of all cases in 1999 to 19.3 percent of all cases in 2004.
Gardasil has its issues, and I won’t be getting it for my daughters. But at least Merck’s scare tactics have raised awareness of HPV and the need for precautions, and I thank them for leading me to look at the alternatives (February 9, March 10).
Hopefully my girls will be sufficiently aware of HPV that they will never suffer as Jade Goody has. My thoughts and prayers go with her.