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Debunking myths of HPV, vaccine

The HPV vaccine is displayed at Medford Pediatrics

The HPV vaccine is displayed at Medford Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine in Medford, New Jersey Credit: MCT/Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel

Proposed legislation in Albany would require children born after Jan. 1, 2009 to be vaccinated against the human papilloma virus before entering the seventh grade starting in September 2021. The measure has outraged many. As a public health professional and uncle to 10- and 12-year-old nieces, it seems like a no-brainer.

Many comments against the measure seem to be fueled by misinformation. As a sexual and reproductive health researcher, I’d like to debunk common myths about HPV and the vaccine. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease. It affects about 1 in 4 Americans. It is usually transmitted through sex, but can pass from person to person through close skin-to-skin contact. About 70% to 80% of people with HPV clear the infection on their own and won’t know they had it.

While many people are concerned about the sexual transmission of HPV, the importance of the vaccine is as a cancer-fighting tool. There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some cause warts on hands, feet and genitals. Others cause cells to abnormally change, which may lead to cancer in the cervix, vagina and vulva in women, penis in men, and the anus and back of the throat in both women and men. These cancers can take years to develop which is why the vaccine is recommended for youth. Anyone age 9 to 45 is eligible.

Now that it’s clear what HPV is and how it is transmitted, let’s examine a few myths.

Myth 1: My children aren’t having sex, why give them the vaccine?

The vaccine works best if it is given before someone becomes sexually active and is exposed to HPV. Research shows that adolescents and young teens create more antibodies to the vaccine than those in their late teens. Antibodies destroy the vaccine germs and then stay in the body, providing immunity. Because young people can produce a lot of antibodies, they only need two doses while those over 15 will need three doses of the vaccine.

Myth 2: My child will have sex earlier if the vaccine is administered.

There is no research suggesting preteens and teens will have sex because they feel the protection from the vaccine. It is important, especially when young people don’t receive comprehensive school-based sexual and reproductive health education, to educate them about sexual health because the vaccine protects against HPV and no other STDs. Research shows that those who get the vaccine are more aware of the risks of condomless sex and STDs.

Myth 3: The HPV vaccine isn’t safe. It can cause major side effects and death.

Side effects like pain, redness at the injection site, or a reaction if someone is allergic to a vaccine ingredient, are not unheard of and are possible with any vaccine. While death is possible, only two of the seven reported HPV vaccine deaths between 2014-2017 were medically verified (out of 28 million doses).

Myth 4: It’s unlikely one vaccine can protect against different cancers.

The HPV vaccines are noninfectious and contain “virus-like” particles. There are three HPV vaccines: 2vHPV (for females only), 4vHPV, and 9vHPV, all of which target different types of HPV. The 4vHPV and 9vHPV are approved for males because they protect against genital warts, whereas the 2vHPV does not.

This might seem new and confusing in the United States, but other countries have done this for some time. The Australian government’s school-based HPV vaccine program has seen substantial decreases in cervical disease and genital warts. If there was a lung-cancer- or brain-cancer-prevention vaccine, people would line up at the doctor’s office to get it. Let’s not make the HPV vaccine debate about sex. It’s about disease prevention.

Anthony J. Santella is an associate professor of public health at Hofstra University.