It’s been a decade since the first HPV vaccine was administered in Australia on August 29, 2006. While the vaccine has been surrounded by some amount of controversy, ten years is enough distance from which to look back and take stock of the results. Happily, there’s good news to report! Since that day in 2006, more than 187 million doses of HPV vaccine have been administered around the world, and the number of new cases of cervical cancer has been reduced by half. There have also been reductions in HPV infections and precancerous lesions since the release of the HPV vaccine.
HPV (Human papillomavirus) is the most common sexually transmitted infection, and almost everybody who is sexually active will be infected at some point in their lives. Many people will never even realize that they have HPV, as the symptoms can be invisible, and most of the time the virus clears out of the body within a couple years. It doesn’t always end that way, though, and besides being the virus that causes genital warts, HPV is the major cause of cervical cancer in women. There’s a 1 in 100 chance of developing a related cancer for people that have the virus.
Because the HPV vaccine is only effective when it’s administered before someone is exposed to any form of HPV, it is recommended for both boys and girls who are age 11-12. However, when some people think of children in the context of sexually transmitted infections, they freak out, as if a potentially lifesaving immunization against a problem they will very likely encounter later in life is a free pass for the little darlings to start having sex right away. While much of the industrialized world realizes that sex is a normal, even pleasant part of life for the vast majority of consenting adults, there’s a puritanical streak in American culture that demands that sex for pleasure be punished in some way. It should also go without saying, sadly, that not all sex is consensual, and unfortunately, not all victims of sexual assault are adults. It is best that even children be protected, at the very least, from HPV infection at that point.
Another dubious claim is that the HPV vaccine causes premature ovarian failure (early menopause) and therefore infertility in women under age 40. This myth seems to circulate every now and then because the cause/effect and deed/punishment connection seems so appealingly intuitive: getting the “promiscuity vaccine” is rewarded with the loss of fertility. However, while there hasn’t been an increase in premature ovarian failure since the introduction of the HPV vaccine, it’s obvious that premature death from cervical cancer is a pretty unbeatable cause of infertility. Furthermore, if we’re going to insist that women choose abstinence during their most fertile years, we should get pretty cozy with the idea that they might not have as many babies as they would otherwise.
Since HPV can also contribute to other cancers of the breast, throat, mouth, penis, and anus, expanding vaccinations to include more young people seems like a worthy endeavor. In places like Australia where the vaccine is provided free of charge to 12 year old children, HPV infections have been reduced by about 90%, and even in the United States, where only 37% of girls and 13% of boys have received the vaccine, there’s been a 64% reduction in HPV infection.
There’s a much higher prevalence of HPV in the developing world, and in Nicaragua, more people die from cervical cancer caused by HPV than from any other cancer. Availability of the HPV vaccine, along with cultural changes related to sexuality, could greatly decrease the chance for premature mortality in women, who in turn hold together their families and communities, benefiting all. The first step in stabilizing many societies is to take care of the women.
Viewed from the distance of a decade, the evidence indicates that the HPV vaccine is a net positive. If we want to claim that we’re a culture that values life, the vaccine, which protects from HPV infection and therefore from many different cancers, should be held in greater esteem. Of course, if we’re a culture that believes more strongly in meting out suffering and punishments, we will also show that in our priorities and actions just as clearly. Choose wisely.
Who’s At Risk for Head and Neck Cancer, courtesy of Lee Health.