Photographed By Jessica Nash.
In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, called Gardasil. With it, cervical cancer became nearly preventable, as HPV figures in over 70 percent of cases.
Back then, less than half of American women knew anything about HPV infection, much less that common strains cause cervical cancer, other genital cancers, and oropharyngeal cancer in both women and men. As of 2012, a little over half of girls aged 13–17 had received at least one dose of the vaccine — three are recommended — but the CDC believes it can get those numbers up to over 90%. What's standing in the way?
In a word, it's fear.
The HPV vaccine is recommended to children 11 and 12 years of age. For some parents, the idea of addressing their children's sexual lives at such a young age hits a little too close for comfort. When states began introducing legislation to mandate HPV vaccination, a backlash quickly ensued with many parents claiming that not only was the vaccine unsafe — an undying mistrust fueled by the by the anti-vaccination movement, which is addressed below – but that it would also cause their children to become more sexually active.
One Montana mother echoed many of these parents when she protested her daughter's school HPV immunization program, which she believed was "encouraging the kids to be sexually active," and that it would give children the false idea that the vaccine would protect them against all sexually transmitted diseases.
A recent study, however, concluded that HPV vaccination has no effect on sexual behavior. Published this month by the journal Pediatrics, researchers at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center surveyed over 300 young women two and six months after their HPV vaccinations. While some of them did believe that HPV vaccination could protect them from other sexually transmitted diseases, that belief wasn't associated with riskier sexual behaviors. More interestingly, the sexually inexperienced girls with this misconception were actually less likely to initiate sex.
And, curiously enough, this is not a scientific revelation. In fact, a 2012 study (also published in Pediatrics) found that, out of a sample of about 1,400 girls, there was no evidence that those who were vaccinated at age 11 became more sexually active that those who were not.
Physicians can lead the charge in educating their patients about this research, but children cannot get vaccinated on their own. (A proposed bill in New York, however, would allow minors to get vaccinated without parental consent.) A 2008 study by Yale researchers concluded that parental fears about HPV vaccination leading to promiscuity made a huge impact on whether or not children would be vaccinated. The role of parents in this equation can't be stressed enough.
Photographed By Jessica Nash.
The other problem is the continued and repeatedly debunked theory that vaccines cause autism and other debilitating ailments. (As opposed to, say, typhoid fever and encephalitis and cancer.) In a 2011 presidential debate, Rep. Michelle Bachmann blasted Gov. Rick Perry's controversial signing of an order to mandate the HPV vaccine in Texas schools, saying that it was "flat-out wrong" to have "innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection," invoking the Tea Party's Big Brother straw man. The next day she went even further, claiming that a mother had told her that the vaccine caused her daughter to become mentally retarded.
The American Academy of Pediatrics quickly shot back and wrote that "there is absolutely no scientific validity" to Bachmann's claims, and that the vaccine has "an excellent safety record."
While adverse reactions to the vaccine do happen, they are overwhelmingly non-threatening events like pain at the injection site, nausea, and fainting. The CDC keeps track of every single one of these reported reactions through a system called the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), regardless of whether they were actually tied to the vaccine.
Between 2006 and 2013, there were about 22,000 such events, but only 8% of those were classified as "serious." Of those, there were 85 reports of people dying after receiving Gardasil; only 43 of those deaths — or about .2% of all reported reactions — were verifiable through autopsy reports and death certificates. Still, there was no clear connection between the vaccine and death among them. "There is no diagnosis at death that would suggest that the Gardasil vaccine caused death," the CDC asserts.
Bachmann, however, was only one of several people fostering fear and mistrust of the HPV vaccine on the national stage — and it continues today. It was less than two months ago that Katie Couric took flak for the HPV vaccine segment on her talk show, when she spoke to two mothers of young women who received the vaccine; one suffered serious illness for three years, and the other died. Neither case, however, could be linked to the vaccine.
After overwhelming criticism from both viewers and medical experts, Couric later admitted that "the program was too anti-vaccine and anti-science," and that "science is telling us that the benefits far outweigh the risks and that adverse reactions are exceptionally rare events."
Even that is an understatement. Overwhelming evidence indicates that the HPV vaccine is safe — and it won't cause our children to become promiscuous. It will, however, help to protect untold numbers of them from some very painful and preventable diseases. It's time to stop the irrational fear over this life-saving measure.