Recently, Dr. Francoise Baylis, a professor at Dalhousie University and Canada Research Chair in bioethics and philosophy, published a column at The Mark news website entitled “Why Girls Shouldn’t Be Guinea Pigs.” In it, she criticizes Quebec’s school-based vaccination program to prevent the human papillomavirus, which is the most common STD and can cause cervical cancer.
In August 2007, Maclean’s published a report on the scientific and medical concerns of health experts in North America about the safety and efficacy of the HPV vaccine. It was entitled, “Our girls aren’t guinea pigs.” Some readers said the article helped them consider all sides of the debate over whether to administer the vaccine, at what age, in what context and with what hopes. Others condemned the story, including the federal chief public health officer, who called the suggestion that girls and women were being put at risk “irresponsible.”
And yet, in her column, Baylis concludes that “the concern about ‘our girls’ being used as ‘guinea pigs’ now appears to be well-founded, at least with respect to thousands of girls in Québec.” The province is vaccinating nine-year-olds, even though the original clinical trials only included 100 girls that young, a small number that Baylis believes provides very limited data on the safety and efficacy of such immunization for that age. What’s more, Baylis says that Quebec isn’t vaccinating these girls in a timely way. Rather than administering three shots of the vaccine to female students within six months, as is recommended by the Canadian National Advisory Committee on Immunization and the manufacturer, the province inoculates them once in the fall, then in the spring; the final dose is given five years later, notes Baylis.
The column ends with an obvious question by Baylis: “Do parents in Québec understand that, in consenting to HPV vaccination for their nine-year-old daughters, they are in effect consenting to their daughters’ participation in an experiment?” Baylis suspects the answer is no. The debate continues.