March 15, 2010
YOUNG GIRLS ARE BEING GIVEN ANTI-CANCER JABS, WITH DUBIOUS RESULTS, FIND SHANTANU GUHA RAY AND KUNAL MAJUMDER
EACH TIME Nageshwara and Venkatamma are asked about Sarita, the farm labourers point to a framed photograph of their daughter. And then they huddle near the entrance of their one-room house in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh and weep inconsolably, recounting a tale of death that came home without warning.
On January 21 this year, Venkatamma found the motionless body of her 13-year-old daughter on the floor. At first she thought her daughter — a student of Lakshminagaram Residential Hostel — had consumed pesticide to commit suicide, possibly after a failed love affair. But the pesticide bottle was intact on the shelf. Sarita was rushed to the nearest healthcare centre where a small team of paramedics and a doctor confirmed that it wasn’t a case of poisoning and referred Sarita to the Bhadrachalam area hospital, 25 km from their house in Anjupaka village. En route, Sarita had a severe epileptic fit. Doctors at the hospital declared that she was “brought dead” and conducted a postmortem. The report was not handed to the parents. At the Nallipaka Public Health Centre (PHC)—which records all births and deaths in the region — Sarita’s death was recorded as suicide. Nageshwara and Venkatamma refused to accept this and cremated their daughter under protest.
“My daughter did not commit suicide. She did not consume poison,” Nageshwara says firmly. “She had started having fits after the vaccine. She told us, so did the hostel supervisor. The hospital officers are lying.” Dr R Balasudha, a paramedic at the PHC in the Narshapuram block under which Anjupaka village falls, adds: “Sarita was not dead when she was brought to the PHC. She did not consume any poison. She was having severe bouts of epileptic attacks and was very, very sick.”
Sarita’s hapless parents learned of a similar death on August 30 last year in Yerragattu village, 60 km from Bhadrachalam. Another 13-year-old, Sodi Sayamma, had died there, with doctors calling it a suicide. But Sayamma’s parents, also farm labourers, said their daughter had not consumed poison or hanged herself. In both cases, the PHCS confirmed the girls had not consumed poison and referred the cases to the Bhadrachalam area hospital. Interestingly, the PHCs — one in Gowrideviteta block covering Yerragattu village and another in Narshapuram block — were responsible for Tadministering the vaccine for the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) in these villages.
The HPV, which is transmitted sexually, is one of the many known causes of cervical cancer. Gardasil, the commercially licensed HPV vaccine produced by Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD), an affiliate of US-based pharmaceutical giant Merck and Co Inc, is supposed to prevent cervical cancer when administered to pre-puberty girls. The Indian unit of the Seattle-based PATH, one of the world’s largest healthcare NGOs, began the HPV vaccination drive on July 9 last year as a demonstration project in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Part of the goal was to vaccinate 14,000 girls in Khammam district — a large percentage of them from poor, tribal families — with three doses of Gardasil. The three zones selected in the district were Thirumalayapalem (urban), Kothagudem (rural) and Bhadrachalam (tribal)