Since it’s FDA-approval in 2006, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine has been a heated topic of debate. Some parents argue in favor, others against, and yet both sides simply want what is best for their children. So how do you know what decision is the right one when there are so many different facts and figures floating around? We talked to experts on the topic and they shared their wisdom in an effort to set the record straight. Here’s what you need to know about the HPV vaccine, vaccine myths and the facts that need to be heard.
There are currently two different HPV vaccines on the market: Gardasil and Cervarix, both of which can be given to girls and young women; boys and young men are only able to get the Gardasil vaccine. Both vaccines protect against the HPV that causes the most cases of cervical cancer, and Gardasil in particular is shown to protect against cervical, anal, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Additionally, Gardasil is known to fight the types of HPV that cause genital warts.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that both girls and boys be vaccinated—a schedule of three shots over six months—at age 11 or 12, before they presumably become sexually active and potentially exposed to HPV. And while, aside from abstinence, the HPV vaccine is widely viewed as the most effective way to protect against genital warts and certain forms of cancer caused by HPV, only one-third of girls ages 13-17 have been fully vaccinated, having received all three doses. Only 6.8 percent of boys ages 13-17 who began the vaccination received all three doses. The stagnant numbers of kids and young adults getting the HPV vaccine begs the question: why aren’t more people getting vaccinated?
Experts say there are two main reasons: parental concerns about the safety of the vaccine and worries that it might inadvertently encourage sexual activity at a younger age. And still others, including Dr. Christiane Northrup, a practicing OB-GYN for more than 25 years and a nationally recognized speaker and author, note that the HPV vaccine doesn’t protect against all HPV types, and therefore will not prevent all cases of cervical cancer.
“Parents need to view this in the same way they would with other childhood vaccinations,” says Dr. Erica Pan, director and deputy health officer for the Alameda County Division of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention in Oakland, Calif., who says the HPV vaccine should be looked upon as one way of protecting the next generation from cancer.
“It’s been shown to be an extremely effective vaccine with few side effects,” Dr. Pan adds.
In fact, a study published in the June 2013 Journal of Infectious Diseases, shows that since the vaccine was introduced in 2006, vaccine-type HPV prevalence decreased 56 percent among female teenagers 14-19 years of age.
Before parents decide whether or not to get their children vaccinated, Dr. Pan says it’s important to separate the myths from the facts, the most common of which we explore below:
Myth: Giving my child the HPV vaccine will encourage them to become sexually active.
Fact: A 2012 study conducted by the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research Southeast in Atlanta and published in the October 2012 journal Pediatrics found no evidence that girls who were vaccinated beginning around age 11 went on to engage in more sexual activity than girls who weren’t vaccinated.
Myth: The HPV vaccine will make my child sick.
Fact: The CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) has received at least 22,000 reports of adverse events in girls and women who got the vaccine between June 2006-March 2013. Over this time, about 57 million doses of the vaccine were distributed in the United States. The CDC notes that any time hundreds of thousands of people are being vaccinated, some patients may experience side effects, but those may also stem from other health conditions and not be connected to the vaccine.
Ninety-two percent of the reported side effects were considered non-serious. They included injection-site pain and swelling, fainting, dizziness, nausea, headache, fever and hives.
The other nearly 8 percent of serious side effects included headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, fainting and generalized weakness.
Myth: It’s not really necessary for my child to get the HPV vaccine.
Fact: “About 6 million new genital HPV infections occur each year in the United States,” says Dr. Pan. “The HPV vaccine is important because the HPV infections that cause most of these cancers could be prevented with the vaccination.”
Dr. Northrup recommends that parents discuss this issue with their child’s doctor and to question the vaccination guidelines. Ask if it makes sense to vaccinate your child at such an early age, or if it makes more sense to wait and vaccinate in the teen years.
Myth: The HPV vaccine is the only way to protect my child against cervical cancer and genital warts.
Fact: Regular pap smears are important for women of all ages who are sexually active, and they are especially important since even women who have had the HPV vaccine can contract cervical cancer. Also, when you are having the sex education talk with your teen, stress practicing safe sex, using a condom and talking about health concerns with their partner.
If you still have questions and concerns, Dr. Pan encourages parents to have a candid conversation with their child’s pediatrician. Take a list of questions to your child’s next doctor’s appointment.
More information on HPV vaccine safety can also be found at http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/Vaccines/HPV/hpv_faqs.html