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Turning suffering into side effects: Responses to HPV vaccination in Colombia


  • Mezza, Maurizia
  • Blume, Stuart


How do unpleasant post-vaccination symptoms become recognized as vaccine ‘side effects'? In this paper, we argue that it is not necessarily the logical outcome of scientific verification that it is said to be. The paper draws on an ethnographic study carried out in a small town, El Carmen de Bolivar, on Colombia's Caribbean coast from February through May 2019. In 2014, hundreds of girls in the town reported a range of mysterious symptoms following mass vaccination against the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Denying the girls' insistence that their symptoms were due to the vaccine, the official diagnosis was Mass Psychogenic Illness. Comparing these events with studies of controversial responses to other vaccines, we suggest that the pathway from post-vaccination symptoms to ‘side effects’ is cognitively and socially complex. In particular, it is context-dependent. Drawing on research in medical anthropology, sociology and STS, we argue that the official diagnosis was influenced by the subjects' marginal status; by a projection of the region's violent past onto individual inhabitants; by health professionals' commitment to a restricted notion of evidence (devaluing patients' own accounts); and by an institutional inability or unwillingness to stand against ‘global consensus’, which deems HPV safe.

Suggested Citation

  • Mezza, Maurizia & Blume, Stuart, 2021. "Turning suffering into side effects: Responses to HPV vaccination in Colombia," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 282(C).
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:282:y:2021:i:c:s0277953621004676
    DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2021.114135

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Dumit, Joseph, 2006. "Illnesses you have to fight to get: Facts as forces in uncertain, emergent illnesses," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 62(3), pages 577-590, February.
    2. Ángela Viviana Pérez, 2016. "​Evaluación de seguridad de la vacuna contra el virus del papiloma humano," Papeles en Salud 16824, Ministerio de Salud y Protección Social.
    3. Behague, Dominique & Tawiah, Charlotte & Rosato, Mikey & Some, Télésphore & Morrison, Joanna, 2009. "Evidence-based policy-making: The implications of globally-applicable research for context-specific problem-solving in developing countries," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 69(10), pages 1539-1546, November.
    4. Haas, Marion & Ashton, Toni & Blum, Kerstin & Christiansen, Terkel & Conis, Elena & Crivelli, Luca & Lim, Meng Kin & Lisac, Melanie & MacAdam, Margaret & Schlette, Sophia, 2009. "Drugs, sex, money and power: An HPV vaccine case study," Health Policy, Elsevier, vol. 92(2-3), pages 288-295, October.
    5. Dobrow, Mark J. & Goel, Vivek & Upshur, R. E. G., 2004. "Evidence-based health policy: context and utilisation," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 58(1), pages 207-217, January.
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