The human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine is mired in controversy, or at least it is in the United States where there is a fearful undercurrent about sex and sexuality. (HPV is the virus that causes genital warts and cervical, vaginal, anal, and many head and neck cancers).
When the HPV vaccine became available the religious right were concerned that giving an adolescent protection against cancer would somehow make them abandon all senses and engage in regular, wanton sex. You know, much the same way teaching kids about seat belts and anti-lock brakes encourages them to drive above the speed limit on the wrong side of the road.
Fortunately, we now know the HPV vaccine will not further erode American morals (what ever those are) thanks to a study just published (Jan 2012) in the American Journal of Preventative Health (Liddon et al). This study evaluated data from over 4,000 women from the National Survey of Family Growth (a continuously administered national probability sample of the U.S. household population aged 15–44 years).
This study tells us, first of all, that unfortunately only 23.1% of adolescents/women ages 15-24 have received at least one shot of the vaccine series. Ages 15-19 were more like to have received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine (30.3%) versus women ages 20-24 (15.9%).
It is no surprise that adolescents and women with health insurance were more likely to receive the HPV vaccine, but interestingly there was no other demographic characteristic for receipt of vaccine that held up when all the factors were evaluated (multivariate analysis).
When evaluating sexual behavior, the study tells us that there was no difference in ever having sex or number of sexual partners among vaccinated adolescents and women versus those who were unvaccinated. The only interesting difference was among sexually active adolescents (ages 15-19)- those who received the vaccine were more likely to report always using a condom in the past 4 weeks than sexually active young women who were unvaccinated. So adolescents who receive the vaccine actually make safer sex choices. This may be related to the sexual health education that leads young women to choose the HPV vaccine or other factors.
To insinuate that a woman of any age would make riskier sexual choices based on being vaccinated against the HPV in insulting at best, but in my mind really borders on misogyny. Women of all ages are smarter than that and it’s really sad that we need a study to prove it.
So please, let it drop. The HPV vaccine will not encourage young women to have more sexual partners or make riskier choices. What it will do is reduce their lifetime risk of cervical and anal pre-cancers and cancers as well as reduce their chances of having an abnormal Pap smear. It is also a very safe vaccine.
The only thing I want to hear a politician say about the HPV vaccine is a pledge to find a way to make it more affordable and accessible.