Costly Lessons from HPV Vaccine in India

Bharat Dogra

There are several examples in which multinational companies tried to introduce their drugs and vaccines in developing countries without caring adequatey for safety and the results proved to be very harmful for a large number of unsuspecting victims particularly women and children. One recent such tragic episode relates to efforts to introduce HPV Vaccine in India.

In 2009 work started in Khammam (Telengana) and Vadodara (Gujarat) by an international organization to administer the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Vaccine with the stated aim of preventing cervical cancer. Mostly poor tribal girls staying in hostels were given these vaccines without they or their parents knowing what really was happening, on the basis of approvals given by hostel wardens in turn based often on wrong or fake documents. Nearly 23000 unsuspecting girls were given this vaccine. Soon there were some deaths and adverse side-effects including epileptic seizures and heavy bleeding on a large scale. This led the ICMR to stop this project.

Later the Standing Committee on Health of the Parliament of India investigated this tragedy and concluded that “safety and rights of children were highly compromised and violated.” This report pointed out that the main international agency involved in this, receiving loads of money from very rich funders and having very top level connections, was not even a registered legal entity and had been functioning ( carrying out highly controversial work ) in violation of India’s laws. Indian collaborators too had been guilty of conflict of interest and other irregularities, including violations of guidelines of the drug and vaccine regulation authorities.

Soon it became clear that the high risks and commercial failure of this vaccine in the USA had prompted two big manufacturers to look for markets in some developing countries including India. As the Parliamentary Committee pointed out, “ Had PATH (the involved international agency) been successful in getting the HPV Vaccine included in the universal immunization program of the concerned countries, this would have generated windfall profit for the manufacturer(s) by way of automatic sale year after year, without any promotional or marketing expenses.”

Thus, what was actually a project of very high risks for Indian tribal (and other) girls and billions of dollars in profits for two big manufacturers was presented by its promoters as a philanthropic project!

The costly lesson emerging from this tragic episode is that regulations in such sensitive areas should be much more clearly known and should be strictly implemented. Those having huge funds to spread around should not be allowed to have their way at the expense of harming the health of a large number of persons (in this case girls from very poor households) and even claiming the life of some of them. The costs of testing such products are much higher in developed countries and so it is likely that more such trials will be conducted in developing countries in future also. Hence there is need to give the highest importance to safety aspects to prevent grave harm being caused to more unsuspecting persons in future.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.

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May 23 2020

Bharat Dogra

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