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4 myths about Gardasil, the HPV vaccine

Posted on Sep. 28, 2018 ( comments)

It seems like a medical breakthrough parents would line up for: a vaccine to protect children against deadly cancers. But fewer than half of teenagers in the United States have completed the series of shots required to protect them from HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a virus known to cause devastating cancers.

“As an oncologist and a mother, I’m so excited that we actually have a shot that can protect my kids, their whole generation and the generations that come after them from six kinds of cancer,” says Carolyn Rutter, MD, a radiation oncologist for MultiCare Regional Cancer Center.

Why don’t more parents share Dr. Rutter’s enthusiasm for the HPV vaccine? In addition to the general distrust of vaccines often perpetuated on social media, the HPV vaccine carries the baggage of being associated with sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

There’s an undeniable “ick” factor when you think about protecting your 11-year-old from an STI. But Dr. Rutter wants parents of adolescents to know the details about this potentially life-saving vaccine so they can base their decision on facts, rather than fear.

Below, she’s answered some of the most common questions parents have about the HPV vaccine.

Why do you want to vaccinate an 11-year-old against an STI? And why should boys be vaccinated at all? Doesn’t it just protect against cervical cancers?

The recommended age to begin vaccinating against HPV is 11 because the immune system responds to the vaccine better at that younger age, says Dr. Rutter.

“Children vaccinated earlier have better long-term protection,” she says. “It also means only two shots are needed.”

Waiting until your child is 15 adds a third shot to the required series.

And although HPV is certainly sexually transmitted, that may not be the only way it spreads — if that helps get your mind around vaccinating your child.

“The cancer we’re now becoming increasingly concerned about is throat cancer,” Dr. Rutter says. “HPV-related throat cancers now outnumber cervical cancers and the rate increases every year.”

It’s clear that HPV can infect the throat through sexual contact, she adds. However, we aren’t certain it can’t be transmitted other ways as well.

“We certainly all get other kinds of viral infections in our throats all the time from casual contact,” Dr. Rutter says.

HPV-related throat cancers in particular happen to be far more common in men than in women.

And though it’s protective against an STI, studies show getting the HPV vaccine early does not increase sexual activity in teens, according to Dr. Rutter. Although promoting safer sex and condom use is always wise, it’s not clear that condoms are 100 percent effective against HPV.

Isn’t the HPV vaccine too new for us to know if it’s safe?

By now, this fear is simply outdated.

“The HPV vaccine isn’t new at all,” Dr. Rutter says. “It’s been around since 2006, just as long as some of the other vaccines that our kids are required to have.”

And although adoption hasn’t been as universal as most doctors would like, the vaccine has been administered more than 270 million times worldwide, Dr. Rutter says. The CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continue to watch for potential safety concerns, but severe reactions are extremely rare.

“No deaths have ever been caused by the HPV vaccine,” says Dr. Rutter. The only kids who should not get the vaccine are those with severe/life-threatening allergies to latex or yeast.

Isn’t the vaccine more dangerous than HPV itself?

Dr. Rutter says the HPV vaccine is extremely safe and effective.

“The six cancers that can be caused by the HPV virus, however, are terribly dangerous,” she says. “They kill thousands of people every year. Even those who are cured typically live the rest of their lives with serious and lasting side effects from treatment such as infertility, trouble with using the bathroom or having to pass stool into a bag, inability to swallow, trouble speaking, loss of teeth — the list goes on and on.”

And HPV is widespread.

“Several studies have shown that 80-90 percent of us will be infected with HPV at some point in our lives, which suggests this virus is just part of our world,” Dr. Rutter says. “Knowing that HPV-related cancers are so devastating, why would anyone take the chance?”

If my daughter is conscientious about annual exams, won’t she catch cancer early enough to be cured anyway?

The HPV vaccine prevents the majority of cervical cancers — and prevention is better than getting treatment for cervical cancer that could cost women their fertility, says Dr. Rutter.

“We are fortunate to have good screening tests for cervical cancer,” Dr. Rutter says. “However, often treatment for cervical cancer — and even the changes that come before and lead to cervical cancer — can cost women their fertility. When not caught, treatment requires aggressive radiation with life-long changes.”

But the vaccine isn’t a substitute for regular exams, she adds.

“There are a few uncommon strains of HPV not covered by the vaccine that can also cause cervical cancer,” Dr. Rutter says.

That means even if a girl gets the HPV vaccine, she should speak to her health care professional about when and how often to have a pelvic exam and pap test.

Parents interested in learning more about the HPV vaccine or scheduling their child to receive the vaccine should discuss it with their child's primary care provider or pediatrician.

More information about the HPV vaccine from the CDC and the American Cancer Society

About The Author

Cheryl Reid-Simons
Cheryl Reid-Simons is a freelance writer and serial community volunteer. In her spare time, she drives a private activities shuttle for her twin sons, healthy graduates of the Tacoma General NICU and interim care nursery. More stories by this author
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