Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi launches the Human papilloma Virus Vaccine at Gonyane Primary in Mangaung in the Free State in 2014. Picture: GCIS

Is the HPV vaccine scare a repeat of the MMR controversy? Marchelle Abrahams finds out more.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)-related cervical cancer is the second most prevalent cancer in South Africa, according to the Department of Health. It was for this very reason it chose to undertake a massive vaccination campaign, targeting female school pupils between the ages of nine and 12.

But in recent weeks, reports have been doing the rounds in the media of the side effects of the vaccine. Ivanka Nortier, 10, from Kraaifontein has been suffering for the past eight months from what doctors believe to be "possible HPV vaccine associated encephalopathy".

In April last year she received the HPV vaccine. Then in July she collapsed and spent three months unable to walk, speak, eat and in constant pain.

Ivanka Nortier who has been battling serious illness after she received the HPV vaccine.

Ivanka's story is not an isolated case. The parents of 11-year-old Zanri Nieuwoudt came forward once news of Ivanka's illness broke. Zanri's parents claim she is suffering from lower motor neuron infection which she contracted after receiving the very same vaccine at school.

Parents are now asking: Why should my child receive the HPV vaccine; and what are the side effects?

The Human Papilloma Virus is a family of viruses of many different sub types, explains Professor Hennie Botha, HOD of Gynaecology & Obstetrics at Stellenbosch University. "If you get infected with the virus and the body is not able to get rid of the infection, your chances of develping cervical cancer is probable," he adds.

Botha then goes describe how one in 10 people don't have the ability to clear the infection, hence the importance of immunising against HPV.

And the reason for vaccinating girls at such a young age?

The reason for doing this is two-fold, says Botha. "The immune system is active at this age. Another reason is that these are preventative vaccines – we want to prevent HPV infection before it starts." In a nutshell, for the HPV vaccine to be the most effective, the series should be given prior to exposure of the virus.

He does however add that parents can vaccinate later in life because it does offer life-long protection.

According to the makers of the vaccine, MSD (Merck), there are two HPV vaccines available in South Africa. These vaccines prevent 2 types of HPV (HPV16 and 18) that causes up to 70 percent of all cervical cancers. One of the vaccines also protects against the 2 types of HPV (HPV6 and 11) that cause up to 90 percent of all genital warts.

When it comes to the side effects, South Africa is not the only country reporting incidents. In October 2015, the Daily Mail ran a story on side-effects among girls who believe that the HPV vaccine increased fatigue, fits and even becoming reliant on a wheelchair.

A lawsuit was also launched against the makers of the vaccines Gardasil (Merck/Sanofi Pasteur) and Cervarix (GSK) worldwide – South Africa currently uses Cervarix in its national schools programme. 

The Japanese government still pays for the vaccine, but made changes to their state vaccination programme after a scare and stopped official recommendation from the ministry of health. 

Parents can still choose to vaccinate their children. Almost all children in Australia, the UK and the Netherlands (to name a few countries) receive the HPV vaccine before the age of 13 years.

The Medicines Control Council (MCC) monitors the safety of vaccines in SA by reviewing local adverse events (ie: a health problem that occurs after someone receives a vaccine or medicine) reports and liaising with international agencies. But according to MSD, the majority of reported adverse events worldwide following HPV vaccination have been considered mild.

Is this a repeat of the MMR scare which started out in the late 90s? Scaremongering drove parents worldwide to withhold their children being immunised against measles, mumps, and rubella after medical researcher Andrew Wakefield’s notorious study suggested a link between MMR and autism. The study was later discredited, but still the damage has been done.

In the meantime, Western Cape health spokesperson Mark van der Heever said he would request the department’s school health services to include “information on side-effects” on all consent forms for future HPV vaccination drives.