The HPV Vaccine: Feminist perspectives from India and the UK by Alice Robson [Feminist Fightback, London]

HPV vaccination


By Shreya Gupta

In this paper, Robson studies the feminist responses to HPV vaccine in India and the UK.  The HPV virus, transmitted through sexual contact, can cause cancer of vagina, anus, penis, throat, neck, head and cervix. The vaccine is gendered in its use. It is advertised as a preventive for women cervical cancer only. This gendered use, as Robson mentions, emphasizes on women as protectors of sexual health. The governments and pharmaceutical companies promote this view – linking sexually transmitted viruses and the sexual behavior of women only.

Robson locates the HPV vaccine in the long history of struggle for women’s reproductive health and rights. In the paper, she historically contextualizes the respective feminist responses to HPV so as to assert the geographical and ideological variability of these responses. The UK response has been pro-vaccine, while Indian feminist groups have sought a ban on the HPV vaccine.

In the Indian context, Robson brings to light the issues of gender, class and caste in the study and use of the HPV vaccine. The research study of Gadrasil medicine was conducted on boarding school girls who were SC/ST/Muslim/OBCs in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat 2009-10. This led us to a discussion on the ethical procedures of vaccine testing, the social background of the girls put under this study and the harmful effects of this vaccine. The social backgrounds of the boarding school (tribal) girls show us how they become a testing ground for pharmaceutical companies as they cater to the middle classes – those who can afford the vaccine; hence the Indian feminist groups’ campaign against the vaccine.

The Indian feminist groups Sama and Saheli also seek a ban on this vaccine as its efficacy is not fully established. They question the necessity of this vaccine when India has such poor primary healthcare infrastructure. In Dec’09 press release ‘Why women’s group oppose HPV vaccines’, Sama and Saheli also bring to light the deaths of some girls which followed after the vaccine study. However, it is difficult to claim any connection between the deaths and the vaccine. With India’s huge population, pharmaceutical companies find this a fertile ground to experiment and sell their products.

In the UK, the vaccine is promoted as a cancer prevention strategy rather than HPV as a sexually transmitted virus. The target groups are the middle classes. The conservative government tends to take the line abstinence-as-prevention. Right wing groups even try to stop women outside abortion clinics.

In the UK, the HPV vaccine was introduced in 2007 as part of the National Health Service child vaccination programme for girls. The Cambridge University Students’ Union Women’s Society even ran a campaign to encourage wider implementation of the vaccine and promoting the use of Gardasil rather than Cervarix. (Gardasil targets more HPV strands than Cervarix).

Hence we see how the UK response has been largely pro-vaccine while the Indian feminist groups have sought to ban the same vaccine because of unethical testing procedures and its uncertain harmful effects. With such variety and variance in responses to the HPV vaccine, Robson ends her paper by asking how western feminism and global south feminisms may come together as feminist health activists to ensure a joint struggle for women’s reproductive rights.


One thought on “The HPV Vaccine: Feminist perspectives from India and the UK by Alice Robson [Feminist Fightback, London]

  1. The very questionable human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is being pushed upon girls and boys around the world.

    Are these young people and their parents being properly informed that the co-inventor of the technology enabling the HPV vaccines, Professor Ian Frazer, has acknowledged that the risk of cancer associated with the HPV virus is very low?

    In an article on the university and CSIRO-funded The Conversation website, titled “Catch cancer? No thanks, I’d rather have a shot!”, Professor Frazer stated: “Through sexual activity, most of us will get infected with the genital papillomaviruses that can cause cancer. Fortunately, most of us get rid of them between 12 months to five years later without even knowing we’ve had the infection. Even if the infection persists, only a few individuals accumulate enough genetic mistakes in the virus-infected cell for these to acquire the properties of cancer cells”. [1]

    If only “a few individuals accumulate enough genetic mistakes in the virus-infected cell for these to acquire the properties of cancer cells”, is it really justifiable to coerce mass populations of children to have HPV vaccination, particularly as the long-term consequences of the HPV vaccine are unknown?

    The Australian National Cervical Screening Program (NCSP) website notes: “Most people with have HPV at some time in their lives and never know it….Most HPV infections clear up by themselves without causing any problems. Infections can cause cervical abnormalities, which, if they persist, can lead to cervical cancer.” The NCSP website notes that : It is important to remember that most women who have HPV clear the virus and do not go on to develop cervical cancer.”[2]

    It’s interesting to note that the Gardasil HPV vaccine was originally rejected by the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) in 2006.

    An article by Matthew Stevens in The Australian at the time, reports the PBAC rejected Gardasil because it was “too expensive and, just maybe, not what it was cracked up to be anyway”. Apparently, Tony Abbott, then the Australian Federal Health Minister “took to the airwaves, passing on PBAC’s concerns about the efficacy of Gardasil and even floating the bizarre idea that a misplaced confidence in the effectiveness of the vaccine might actually result in “an increase in cancer rates”.” [3]

    According to Matthew Stevens very interesting report in The Australian, it took just 24 hours for the then Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, to “put an end to the nonsense”, delivering “sparkling prime ministerial endorsement to Gardasil along with a clear direction to Minister Abbott that the immunisation program should proceed. And pronto.” [4]

    So is this how important decisions on vaccination practice are made? On the whim of a Prime Minister in pre-electioneering mode? John Howard’s wife had cervical cancer.[5] Did this personal experience affect Howard’s decision? Was this appropriate considering the complexity of the issue in regards to low risk of cancer, controversy re appropriate age for cervical cancer screening etc?

    What sort of lobbying took place to overturn the PBAC’s original decision to reject Gardasil?

    In her report “Government response to PBAC recommendations”, Marion Haas provides some commentary on the Australian government’s interference with the PBAC’s initial rejection of Gardasil, noting the then Prime Minister, John Howard, “intervened personally by announcing that the drug would be subsidised (i.e. listed) as soon as the manufacturer offered the right price. The PBAC subsequently convened a special meeting and recommended that Gardasil be listed on the PBS”[6] (Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme).

    Haas notes that “the developer of the Cervical Cancer vaccine [i.e. Ian Frazer] was prominent in the media during the debate about listing. His influence was enhanced by his position as Australian of the Year.”[7]

    Haas argues the main objectives “of the PBAC are to consider the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of medicines in making recommendations to government regarding the listing of drugs for public subsidy. A perceived willingness to interfere in this process may undermine these objectives…” Government reaction which results in reversal of PBAC decisions has “the potential to send signals to manufacturers and lobby groups that a decision made by the PBAC may be reversed if sufficient public and/or political pressure is able to be brought to bear on the PBAC…this may undermine the processes used by the PBAC to determine its recommendations and hence the perceived independence of the PBAC.”[8]

    Getting a vaccine on the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme must be the ‘golden goose’ for vaccine manufacturers as this assures a mass market for their vaccine product. Other countries have also adopted HPV vaccination, impacting on millions of children around the world and resulting in multi millions of dollars’ worth of sales for Merck (Gardasil) and GlaxoSmithKline (Cervarix)[9], and royalties for entrepreneurial scientist Ian Frazer from sales of HPV vaccines in developed countries[10], and for CSL which receives royalties from sales of Gardasil.[11].

    No wonder Ian Frazer was willing to forego royalties from developing countries [12] – how much profit will he reap from sales of the vaccine to governments in developed countries?

    The case for universal HPV vaccination is unconvincing, and the motives for its promotion are suspect. It’s time there was an investigation into the government lobbying and aggressive global marketing of the HPV vaccine.

    For more information, read my letter to Irish Senator Paschal Mooney, who has made an impassioned speech about young girls and women in Ireland suffering adverse events after HPV vaccination. My letter to Senator Mooney includes background information on the controversial fast-tracked implementation of Gardasil HPV vaccination in Australia in 2006/2007. My letter to Senator Mooney (4 November 2015) can be accessed via this link:


    1. “Catch cancer? No thanks, I’d rather have a shot!”. The Conversation, 10 July 2012:
    2. About the human papillomavirus. National Cervical Screening Program. Australian Government Department of Health:
    3. Howard rescues Gardasil from Abbott poison pill. The Australian, 11 November, 2006:
    4. Ibid.
    5. How the Rudds profited from Janette Howard’s cancer scare. Crikey, 22 February, 2007:
    6. Haas, Marion. “Government response to PBAC recommendations”. Health Policy Monitor, March 2007:
    7. Ibid.
    8. Ibid.
    9. FierceVaccines special report on the 20 Top-selling Vaccines – H1 2012 states that H1 2012 sales for Gardasil (Merck) were $608 million, and sales for Cervarix (GlaxoSmithKline) were $285 million:
    10. “Catch cancer? No thanks, I’d rather have a shot!”. The Conversation, 10 July 2012: disclosure statement on this article by Ian Frazer states: “Ian Frazer as co-inventor of the technology enabling the HPV vaccines receives royalties from their sale in the developed world.”
    11. CSL ups profit guidance on Gardasil sales. The Australian, 27 November 2012:
    12. “Catch cancer? No thanks, I’d rather have a shot!”. The Conversation, 10 July 2012: disclosure statement on this article by Ian Frazer states: “Ian Frazer as co-inventor of the technology enabling the HPV vaccines receives royalties from their sale in the developed world.”


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