Action 9: Local women sue Merck after allegedly suffering side-effects from HPV vaccine

SHELBY, N.C. — Everyone has heard a lot of talk about vaccines these last few years because of the pandemic.

Action 9 investigator Jason Stoogenke has been looking into complaints about another one -- it’s not tied to COVID, but it’s the vaccine for HPV, or the human papillomavirus.

The CDC says almost everyone will get HPV at some point in their lives but you’ll probably never know it. Still, in some cases, the virus can cause cervical and other cancer.

But Stoogenke found some women say the vaccine left them -- or their daughters -- with permanent health problems.

Rebecca Hougas and her mother, Jamie, say Rebecca had the HPV vaccine -- GARDASIL -- when she was nine years old and started having severe stomach pains about a week after the second shot.

“Once or twice a week, we were in the ER,” Jamie said. “Our family went through a lot. That was when I said we got to do something. I can’t, I can’t, this can’t continue, we got to do something.”

They say doctors did all sorts of tests and ruled out various diseases, but never could say for sure whether the vaccine caused Rebecca’s problems.

“There’s no smoking gun, no,” Jamie acknowledges. “It just seems too much of a coincidence to ignore.”

Now, years later, Rebecca says she is still living with stomach problems and has also developed joint issues.

Others say they do have proof, enough to sue Merck, the company that makes GARDASIL. A Harrisburg and a Mooresville woman each filed suit in federal court.

The first says she is living with lightheadedness, shortness of breath, migraines, fatigue and GI issues “none of which were present prior to her GARDASIL vaccination.”

The other says she has “whole body convulsions, sleep disorder ... appetite loss, headaches, leg pain, severe fatigue ... and skin problems” and that a neurologist said the vaccine may have caused some of the ailments.

The plaintiffs -- and the Hougases -- believe Merck rushed the drug to market.

“I understand this does not happen to everyone, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” she said.

Merck emailed Stoogenke, “We stand behind the safety and efficacy of our GARDASIL vaccine and will vigorously defend against these allegations.”

The company points to the numbers. It says it researched GARDASIL for 20 years and it is now licensed in more than 130 countries. The FDA didn’t just approve the vaccine recently, it’s been 14 years. It said hundreds of millions of doses of GARDASIL have been distributed worldwide, and that more than 160 studies have shown the vaccine is safe.

Experts: Gardasil’s benefits outweigh the risks

Fred Wyand and Denise Linton are with the American Sexual Health Association, based in North Carolina. They say the benefits of the vaccine greatly outweigh the risks, and that the vaccine can be life-saving.

“The thing with vaccines, once they’re approved, it’s not they’re just thrown out there and the authorities say, ‘OK, we’re done. Best of luck to you.’ There is ongoing maintenance and surveillance to monitor these vaccines in terms of their safety profile,” Wyand said.

“We’re actually seeing where there’s a reduction in pre-cancerous cells and a reduction in cervical cancer because of that … I think this is awesome,” Linton said.

The CDC and National Cancer Institute both recommend the HPV vaccine as well.

“I think having an HPV vaccine, vaccines in general, are still a great idea,” Rebecca said. “I’m sure there’s plenty of girls out there that had this vaccine and had no effects and it was great for them and now they’re not worried about it.”

Rebecca says she is not one of them.

Can you get a different HPV vaccine?

The short answer is no. GARDASIL is the only one approved in the U.S.

Either way, everyone’s case is different so talk to your doctor. Like Merck’s website says, “Only a doctor or health care professional can decide if GARDASIL ... is right for you or your child.”

The CDC says almost everyone will get it at some point in their lives, but you will probably never know it. You will be fine. Still, in some cases, the virus can cause cervical and other cancer.

For more information from the National Cancer Institute, click here.

(WATCH BELOW: Moderna seeks authorization for COVID-19 vaccine for young children)