A 14-year-old schoolgirl died hours after being given the controversial cervical cancer vaccine today. The teenager from Blue Coat Church of England School, in Coventry, died in hospital after receiving the Cervarix jab.
The tragedy marks the first reported death since more than 1.5m doses of the injection were given to young girls as part of a national vaccination programme since last September in the UK. A number of her classmates have reported side effects to the vaccine. Critics say the case highlights the risks of mass vaccination, because no testing regime can ever pick up the rarest and potentially most lethal side effects.
Tonight there were calls for the entire cervical cancer vaccination programme to be suspended, but officials from the Department of Health would not say whether it will be halted for tens of thousands of girls due to be given the vaccine in the coming months.
But vaccine experts called for the mass programme to continue, saying it will help save 700 deaths from cervical cancer every year.
The girl died after having the jab administered. It is not yet known definitively whether the jab caused the death and a post mortem will take place. But the batch of the vaccine used at the school has been quarantined to test whether it is faulty or contaminated during production or distribution. Some other girls at the school have suffered from dizziness and nausea but it is understood that none have been sent to hospital. The Cervarix vaccine is currently being given to all girls aged 12 and 13 in a nationwide programme. A catch-up programme will mean that everyone under the age of 18 will be given it by 2011.
The injection is voluntary but parents have to opt out of their children taking part in the programme and just 30per cent have done so. It guards against infection by the sexually transmitted disease HPV, which causes 70 per cent of all cases of cervical cancer. Although the cancer does not usually strike until middle age, the jab has to be given to girls before they start having sex to have the best effect. This has led anti-vaccine groups to claim it will encourage promiscuity.
Critics argue women are as well protected by regular smear tests and use of male contraception against the most common sexually transmitted strains of the virus. Jackie Fletcher, of pressure group Jabs, said: ‘We must halt the vaccine programme immediately and not put further girls at risk before a thorough investigation is carried out. ‘We have heard from a large number of girls who have suffered adverse reactions from this vaccine. How many more severe adverse reactions do they need before they act?
‘We are vaccinating thousands of girls against a disease they may not be at risk from. ‘Instead of giving them vaccines, we should be promoting other measures they should be taking – such as not being promiscuous and using a condom. The age of cervical cancer screening tests needs to be lowered from 25.’
The school vaccination programme followed clinical trials in 2005 on more than 18,000 women under the age of 26. But critics have claimed the five-year study was too short and not enough pre-pubescent girls were involved in it. Thousands of schoolgirls have experienced health problems after being given the jab.
Some 2,118 teenage girls suffered side-effects from rashes to paralysis in the year since the vaccine was introduced in schools, according the Medicine and Healthcare Regulatory Agency. Although the majority were mild, the reports include more serious conditions such as convulsions, heart palpitations and paralysis. Around the world, Cervarix and another rival version, Gardasil, have been linked to 30 deaths as well as cases of Guillain- Barré syndrome - a little-understood malfunctioning of the immune system which can cause paralysis.
Last year the Daily Mail revealed that a girl had been paralysed with the rare Guillain Barre syndrome after having the Cervarix vaccine. Ashleigh Cave collapsed shortly after having the jab, leaving her with no feeling from the waist down. And in January 2008 two schoolgirls died after being given the rival Gardasil jab in Germany and Austria.
Dr Caron Grainger, joint director for public health for NHS Coventry and Coventry City Council, said: ‘A 14-year-old girl took ill at a school in Coventry and was taken to University Hospital in the city where she later sadly died. Our sympathies are with the girl’s family and friends at this difficult time. ‘The incident happened shortly after the girl had received her HPV Vaccine in the school. No link can be made between the death and the vaccine until all the facts are known and a post mortem takes place. NHS Coventry has taken the proactive step to quarantine the batch of vaccine being used as a precautionary measure only and have informed the regulatory authority. We are conducting an urgent and full investigation into the events surrounding this tragedy.’
Tonight public health minister Gillian Merron said: ‘Our deepest sympathies are with the family. It is important we have the results of further investigations as soon as possible to establish the cause of this sad event.’
Cervarix is manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline. Dr Pim Kon, Medical Director, GlaxoSmithKline UK said: 'Our deepest sympathies are with the family and friends of the young girl. ‘We are working with the Department of Health and MHRA to better understand this case, as at this stage the exact cause of this tragic death is unknown. As a precautionary measure, the batch of vaccine involved has been quarantined until the situation is fully understood.’
To date the vast majority of suspected adverse reactions reported to MHRA in association with Cervarix vaccine have related either to the signs and symptoms of recognised side effects listed in the product information or were due to the injection process and not the vaccine itself.