When a Texas mom took her teenage daughter for a Gardasil vaccination in 2015, she did it to protect her child. Now, she lives with guilt that the decision she made may have ruined her only daughter’s life.
Like many other parents, the concerned mom heard about human papillomavirus (HPV) and the risk of cervical cancer from Merck’s Gardasil commercials.
“My daughter was entering the 9th grade,” she told Drugwatch. “She wasn’t sexually active, and I knew she wouldn’t be for years. But knowing that as an adult she might not take time to protect herself with a vaccine compelled me to act now. She had never had any bad experiences with vaccines before, and getting Gardasil seemed like a no-brainer.”
Now, the Texas teen has chronic fatigue, pain, an enlarged thyroid and also had to remove her gallbladder — and no one knows why.
Her mother suspects it was Gardasil.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two vaccines to prevent HPV-caused cancers in females and males ages 9 through 26: Gardasil, Gardasil 9. Cervarix is approved for females ages 9 through 25. But the vaccines do not protect against all HPV infections that cause cancer, so the FDA recommends continued cervical cancer screening.
Though the side effects are rare, several websites and Facebook groups all over the world tell the stories of teenagers suffering from allergic reactions and autoimmune disorders after receiving the Gardasil vaccine. Some even died. The vaccine’s label mentions a handful of autoimmune responses to the vaccine but says nothing definitive about risk.
HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 14 million infections occur each year. In fact, the CDC estimates about 80 percent of sexually active women will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives.
Though not all types of HPV can lead to cancer, the National Cancer Institute says about 3 percent of cancer cases among women and 2 percent among men are caused by high-risk HPV types.
Merck’s Gardasil campaign drummed up awareness about the dangers of HPV and support for the vaccine. Even then Texas governor Rick Perry signed a law to mandate young girls be vaccinated for HPV in 2007, though he later reversed it.
At the time, it was an easy decision for BZ, who is only being identified by her initials — all she could think of was protecting her daughter from cancer.
“I didn’t want to be like my mom,” she said. “We never openly talked about sex or sexually transmitted diseases when I was young. I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I could for my daughter and her health. I had friends with cervical cancer, and I wanted to spare my daughter that struggle.”
BZ’s then 15-year-old daughter received the vaccine, and everything was fine. She went home and resumed her active teenage lifestyle, including competing in equestrian events and exercising.
Though in the months that followed, she began feeling unwell.
In May 2016, BZ got a call from the nurse’s office at her daughter’s school. The nurse told her the teenager was complaining of chest pain.
“At first, I thought it was just acid reflux,” BZ said. “I ended up taking her to an urgent care clinic. At the clinic, they told us to go to the ER.”
The ER visit would mark the start of a long string of strange diagnoses that would transform the once active, healthy teenage girl — a struggle she still faces today.
BZ’s daughter suffered from fatigue, severe abdominal pain and an enlarged thyroid. The teenager ended up in UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
The doctors were so concerned with the persistent pain that they placed the teenager on a morphine drip. After a battery of tests, doctors determined the pain was caused by the gallbladder, and they removed it.
But even after they removed the gallbladder, the pain continued. Doctors began giving her nerve block injections which did little to nothing for the pain. The once active girl suffered from chronic fatigue and spent the majority of her days in bed and in and out of specialists’ offices.
“She missed so many days of school,” BZ said. “She cancelled trips and other activities she looked forward to because she was so tired. Here she was, a 17-year-old with chronic fatigue. She tells me she feels older than me, and I’m in my fifties.”
Then, one of the health professionals BZ talked to told her about case reports connecting autoimmune issues to Gardasil.
That was when the concerned mom began researching Gardasil and its side effects. What she found was disheartening. She realized that the vaccine she thought was supposed to protect her daughter may now afflict her with autoimmune issues for the rest of her life.
BZ is not alone with such concerns. A handful of studies connect HPV vaccines to autoimmune disorders, including thyroid issues, migraines, seizures, tremors, and cognitive problems among others.
One of these studies conducted by Drs. Lucija Tomljenovic and Christopher A. Shaw and published in 2012 in Pharmaceutical Regulatory Affairs found Gardasil may trigger potentially fatal autoimmune problems.
Tomljenovic and Shaw studied brain tissue from two deceased young women who suffered inflammation of the brain and spinal cord following Gardasil vaccination. They found evidence of the vaccine adhering to the blood vessel walls in the brain.
“In particular, the fact that positive cerebral blood vessel wall immunoreactivity was observed with HPV-16L1 and not with HPV- 18L1 antibody suggests that HPV vaccines containing HPV-16L1 VLPs (including Gardasil and Cervarix) pose an inherent risk for triggering potentially fatal autoimmune vasculopathies and are therefore inherently unsafe for some individuals,” the authors wrote.
In response to side-effect fears, Merck funded a study led by Dr. Chun Chao and colleagues at Kaiser Permanente in California in 2012. The study appeared in the Journal of Internal Medicine and determined the vaccine does not trigger autoimmune disorders such as Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis.
“These findings offer some assurance that among a large and generalizable female population, no safety signal for autoimmune conditions was found following HPV4 vaccination in routine clinical use,” Chao wrote.
According to Chao, many of the reports of autoimmune disorders “stemmed from case reports that have not been confirmed by large, controlled epidemiologic studies.”
That is little comfort to the parents of children already afflicted with autoimmune conditions after receiving the vaccine.
BZ’s mother had Hashimoto’s disease later in life and later died from complications of the thyroid disease, though BZ has not had any symptoms. Now, she is left wondering whether the vaccine triggered the dormant genes in her daughter.
“I’m afraid I hurt my daughter,” BZ said, emotion in her voice. “I believe in research, and I trusted that they properly vetted the vaccine. I considered myself an informed citizen, but I feel betrayed. It makes me sick.”
The teenager planned to apply to a college with a scholarship under an equestrian athletic program, a sport she dearly loved and has dreamed of competing in since she was a little girl.
Now, BZ watches her once active daughter struggle to take short walks.
“She was always obsessed with horses. But after all of this, she told me, ‘Mom, I can’t do that. I’m just too tired.’ She’s angry,” BZ said. “I’m still processing all of it, and I have tremendous feelings of guilt that I caused it.”
The search for specialists that can help the teenager manage her symptoms continues, and BZ cautions parents.
“I’m grateful for medications because they help people. But don’t trust blindly like I did. Do your due diligence to read about these side effects. If I had known this could possibly ruin my daughter’s life, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Michelle Y. Llamas is a senior content writer. She is also the host of Drugwatch Podcast where she interviews medical experts as well as patients affected by drugs and medical devices. She has written medical and legal content for several years — including an article in The Journal of Palliative Medicine and an academic book review for Nova Science Publishers. With Drugwatch, she has developed relationships with legal and medical professionals as well as with several patients and support groups. Prior to writing for Drugwatch, she spent several years as a legal assistant for a personal injury law firm in Orlando. She obtained her English – Technical Communication degree from the University of Central Florida. She is a committee member with the American Medical Writers Association.