More Research on the HPV Vaccine is Moving the Needle in the Right Direction

3 Doses of Merck’s Gardasil Vaccine

The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine prevents cancer, and while it’s still widely proven to be a safe and effective option, parents are still convinced it isn’t a good idea for their children. It has been 8 years since the FDA first approved the vaccine that prevents cancer-causing strains of HPV, and since then there has been a 56% decrease in HPV diagnoses for 14-19 year olds. While many studies have argued it’s safe, the vaccine is still considered controversial because it may give young people “permission” to have sex. A new study in Pediatrics supports the great amount of existing data suggesting that receiving the vaccine has virtually no effect on the likelihood of having sex at a young age.

HPV affects 79 million Americans, most of which are in their late 20s, and each year about 12,000 individuals are diagnoses with cervical cancer caused by HPV. Because the virus is sexually transmitted, the vaccine is most effective before an individual becomes sexually active. Once becoming sexually active, it is often difficult to determine if an infection has occurred because many show no signs. The most popular of the HPV vaccines is Gardasil, which protects against four major strains of HPV and is approved for males and females ages 9-26; two of these strains prevent 70% of cervical cancer, and the other two prevent 90% of genital warts. Many parents worry that because the vaccine protects against sexually-transmitted infection, their child will be under the impression that they are safe to practice unprotected sex and therefore be as “promiscuous as they so desire.” According to the study in Pediatrics, the vaccine does not change a child or young adult’s outlook on sex or number of sexual partners once they’ve had the vaccine; no correlation exists between the vaccine and sexual behavior. This is just one of many studies to prove this fact, which begs the question, why is receiving the vaccine still up for debate

According to the most recent data available from the CDC, only about 33% of girls in the U.S. ages 13-17 have received a full 3 doses of the HPV vaccine series in 2012. Considering that the vaccine is no longer a new product on the market and the extensive research proves it’s success in preventing HPV, the number of adolescents and young adults should be higher. I asked my mother and pediatrician, Dr. Naomi Chaim-Watman M.D., what she thinks about this matter and what kinds of trends she personally sees in her private practice in Long Beach, NY:

“Most of the teens in my practice are indeed getting the vaccine. It’s all in how you present it to the parents. I always say that you want to give it way before they are even thinking about sex and I give [the parents] literature on it,” Chaim-Watman stated. “There is a small percentage of parents that stick their head in the sand regarding their kids activities though and don’t want to hear it.”

She continued to discuss the importance of talking about the vaccine as a parent. She feels parents are more likely to understand this possibly uncomfortable situation when she talks to them as a mother rather than a physician, and explains that all of her children are vaccinated. I found it interesting to hear that most of her patients are getting the vaccine because this isn’t the case across the country. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that New York is traditionally a liberal state (conservatives tend to be more opposed to mandating vaccines), or maybe my mother is viewed as trustworthy and persuasive in making people understand that the vaccine is a good option; this is something she feels is very important for all teens to consider so she makes a point to educate her patients. Either way, the inconsistencies in regards to youth in America receiving the vaccine makes it difficult to pin point what exactly would influence more parents to have their children vaccinated.

I believe continuing to promote the benefits of the vaccine in areas of high HPV prevalence would be a good start in seeing an increase in the numbers of vaccinated individuals. Perhaps pediatricians and adolescent health professionals should start receiving formal training for educating parents on the importance of the HPV vaccine or how to talk to their children about safe sex practices. The most common reasons parents say they don’t get their children vaccinated is because their child is not having sex, safety concerns, and lack of knowledge on the importance of the vaccine. With this being said, what do you think it will take for more parents to get their children vaccinated?

For more information,

RH Reality Check commentary: “One More Time, With Feeling: The HPV Vaccine Does Not Encourage Sexual Behavior”

Pediatrics, Volume 133, Number 3, March 2014: “Risk Perceptions and Subsequent Sexual Behaviors After HPV Vaccination in Adolescents”

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