COLOMBIA NEWS (Associated Press) – A mystery illness has apparently overwhelmed a small town in northern Colombia, with scores of teenage girls in hospital with symptoms that parents fear could be an adverse reaction to a vaccine against cervical cancer.
Parents are on edge however because all the girls, ranging in ages from 9 to 16, were injected in recent months with the vaccine Gardasil. On Wednesday, residents marched peacefully to demand a thorough investigation.
Authorities say they still do not know what caused more than 200 girls in El Carmen de Bolivar, a town of 95,000 near Colombia’s Caribbean coast, to come down with symptoms ranging from fainting to numbness in the hands and headaches.
Francisco Vega, the town’s mayor and a doctor, said that illnesses first appeared at the end of May and hade been steadily increasing since. Over the weekend, 120 girls were rushed to hospitals, overwhelming the town’s limited medical facilities. None of their symptoms were life-threatening and all had since been released, he said.
Echoing the assurances of national health and toxicology experts, who have travelled to the town to collect blood samples and investigate possible environmental hazards, he said there’s no evidence the vaccine, which has undergone extensive testing and regulation globally, is to blame.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria is criticizing hyped coverage by the media for stirring panic, saying concerns about their vaccine, which has been applied to 2.9 million women in Colombia, are baseless.
“On one side we have the weight of scientific evidence and on the other are opinions and moral prejudices,” he told W Radio on Wednesday, adding the cervical cancer claims the lives of more than 3,000 women every year in Colombia.
Veronica Trulin, head of communications in Latin America for Merck, said all lots of the vaccine, including the ones sent to Colombia, meet all required quality and safety standards.
“We don’t comment on speculation about our products,” she said in an email