No Excuses: The HPV Vaccine
“I didn’t get the HPV vaccine because…” “I won’t have my daughter vaccinated against HPV because…” There are many “reasons” why women choose not to be, or have their daughters, vaccinated against HPV. Women have plenty of excuses to opt out, though very few actual reasons to do so. To dispel some of the most common excuses, we sat down with Dr. Mark DeFrancesco of Westwood Women's Health to get the facts on HPV, the vaccine, and cervical cancer.
WHC: Let’s start from the top. Many women don’t know what HPV is. “I don’t know what HPV is, so why do I need a vaccine”, sounds like a valid reason.
Dr. DeFrancesco: HPV, the human papillomavirus virus, is the cause of a sexually transmitted infection that can infect the genital areas, mouth and throat of men and women. There are over 40 types of HPV and collectively they make up the most common STI. HPV is dangerous because some types can also cause cervical cancer and other cancers that could involve the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (back of the throat). In addition, many types may cause genital warts.
WHC: So if HPV causes an STI, can women skip the vaccine and just use protection?
Dr. DeFrancesco: There are many reasons why protection is not enough. First, no protection if 100% effective in preventing STIs. Using condoms does decrease the chance of getting infected, but does not eliminate it. Additionally, sexual contact might include oral sex, where protection is most often not used.
WHC: Protection isn’t 100%, but neither is the HPV vaccine, right? You said there are over 40 types of HPV. Some women say one of the reasons they don’t get the vaccine, is because it only protects against a small percentage of HPV types.
Dr. DeFrancesco: There are two HPV vaccines: Cervarix and Gardasil. Both vaccines protect against two types of HPV (16 and 18). Though these two types only represent 5% of all HPV types, they are known to cause 70% of cervical cancer, 60% of vaginal cancers, 40% of vulvar cancers, and 80% of anal cancers. In addition, Gardasil, the most commonly distributed HPV vaccine, prevents an additional two forms of HPV (6 and 11), which are proven to cause 90% of genital warts.
WHC: You say this vaccine will prevent 70% of cervical cancer. Some women who believe that regular pap smears will catch cervical cancer before it forms. So if women have regular pap smears, do they really need to worry about another way to prevent cervical cancer?
Dr. DeFrancesco: Almost half of all women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer have had their regular pap smears, but no test is perfect and it is possible that even a properly performed Pap smear may miss signs of it.
WHC: What would you say to women who know HPV is dangerous, know the vaccine can prevent cervical cancer, but still do not want to get the vaccine for themselves or their daughters because it is a new vaccine that hasn’t been tested “enough”?
Dr. DeFrancesco: More than 46 million doses have been distributed in the six years since the vaccine was approved by the FDA and there is no proven causal link between the vaccine and serious adverse effects. Prior to approval, HPV vaccines were studied in thousands of people in many countries around the world, including the United States. These studies showed no serious safety concerns, and found that both HPV vaccines were safe.
WHC: Another reason parents aren’t vaccinating their daughters has been in the news recently. They are concerned vaccinating young girls against an STI will promote promiscuity.
Dr. DeFrancesco: Using a seat belt doesn’t give one permission to have an accident. If you have this kind of concern for your daughter, it’s a good time to talk to her about the consequences of intercourse like HPV, other STIs, and unwanted pregnancy.
WHC: Similarly, some women believe people only get HPV and other STIs if they have multiple partners.
Dr. DeFrancesco: This is a common misconception about all STIs. You can get an STI through one sexual encounter. And HPV is the most common STI. It’s so common, studies have shown that about 80% of ALL people will contract HPV before age 30. It can also be contracted by any sexual skin to skin contact, not just by sexual intercourse. Even if you only have one sexual partner, there is no way to be absolutely sure he doesn’t have HPV. Furthermore, HPV can go dormant. Therefore, even if someone has tested HPV negative, it doesn’t mean they are clear.
WHC: What about parents who think 11 or 12 years old is way too young for their daughters to be vaccinated because they aren’t sexually active?
Dr. DeFrancesco: It’s important to get vaccinated before girls/women become sexually active. HPV is the most common STI and can be transmitted in just one sexual encounter.
Hopefully, we have cleared up some confusion about the HPV vaccine. More importantly, we hope we’ve addressed your excuses, and you will get vaccinated if you are in the right age group , or have your daughters vaccinated if they are. There are no excuses to skip the HPV vaccine. It is the first vaccine in the world proven to prevent cancer! Since January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month, it’s the perfect time to schedule an appointment for the vaccine. Call your doctor TODAY!