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Turns out, the vaccine did the trick. The Centers for Disease Control just released encouraging statistics: HPV has decreased by 56 percent among teenagers since the vaccine was introduced back in 2006.

What’s the Deal?

Human papillomavirus is no joke. The virus, which is commonly spread through sexual contact, can cause cervical cancer in women and genital warts in both sexes. HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the country, even more than well-known diseases like herpes, Chlamydia, or gonorrhea. Many people contract HPV and pass it on to partners without even realizing they’re infected. The CDC estimates 79 million people in the United States are currently infected with HPV, and roughly 14 million new infections crop up every year. Most cases do not result in health problems — about 360,000 Americans get genital warts each year, and roughly 12,000 women develop cervical cancer annually (HPV is found in nearly all cases of cervical cancer).

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a brand-name vaccine, Gardasil, for use in female patients ages nine through 26. The vaccine protects against the most common (but not all) HPV strains. The dosage is delivered in three inoculations, ideally all within six months. Cervarix, another brand-name trifecta of HPV shots that targets two different HPV types, was approved for girls and women ages 10 through 25 in 2009. And protection against HPV isn’t just for ladies — the FDA signed off on using both vaccines for men and boys in 2009, too.

Since the vaccine was introduced in 2006, the numbers of new HPV cases have dropped, even though its use is still quite limited in the United States. In Denmark, Great Britain, and Rwanda, for example, the percentage of vaccinated young women is roughly 80 percent. From 2003 to 2006, the HPV infection rate among teenage girls and young women ages 14 to 19 was 11.5 percent. That rate fell to 5.1 percent from 2007 to 2010. Various studies since the vaccine’s introduction have proved that the immunization is more effective for younger girls (ages 9 to 13), but that even just one dose (instead of all three) can reduce the risk of getting HPV by up to 82 percent.

Why It Matters

So why aren’t adolescents and their families banging down their doctor’s door to access a vaccine that can prevent cancer? As is common with any major medical breakthrough (especially those involving vaccines), the HPV treatment has become fairly controversial.

Some critics worry the relatively new vaccine is still dangerous and untested for side effects. To date, most of the reported side effects from the inoculation are garden-variety responses such as headaches, soreness, fever, and nausea.

But it seems the HPV inoculation is even more controversial than regular vaccines, which some groups once believed could cause autism. Because HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, the decision to vaccinate or not requires a conversation about sexuality with young girls, which makes some parents uncomfortable. The vaccine is most effective when girls and boys are 11 or 12 (aka before they are sexually active), so it can protect them against any future contact with the virus, sexual or otherwise. HPV isn’t solely transmitted through sex, but regardless, some parents are worried that HPV vaccines will make teenagers (especially girls) more likely to be promiscuous at an earlier age The HPV vaccine: framing the arguments FOR and AGAINST mandatory vaccination of all middle school girls. Vamos CA, McDermott RJ, Daley EM. Department of Community and Family Health, University of South Florida College of Public Health, Tampa, FL, USA. The Journal of School Health. 2008 Jun;78(6):302-9..

In addition to the physical and moral qualms, the treatment has become another public health issue loaded with political baggage. The HPV vaccine controversy touches on several hot-button questions like how much (or how little) the government should interfere with what citizens put in their bodies, if politics should delve into moral or sexual issues, and how vaccines actually affect the body. For example, in 2011, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann claimed that vaccines cause “mental retardation” and other “dangerous consequences.”

Is it Legit?

Yes. But don’t get too excited. Right now, only one-third of all girls between the ages of 14 and 19 have received the full three-shot dose of the HPV vaccine. Approximately half of that age group received just one shot (one-third of the complete dose). The vaccine has proved itself an effective method to cut HPV risk, but it will take more widespread usage to dramatically reduce cases of various cancers and genital warts. And that doesn’t just mean giving the vaccine to women — in 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommended the HPV vaccination for boys and young men, too. Men are equally susceptible to HPV and its health consequences like genital warts and certain cancers Human papillomavirus vaccine and men: what are the obstacles and challenges? Stupiansky NW, Alexander AB, Zimet GD. Department of Pediatrics, Indiana University, Indianapolis, IN, USA. Current Opinion in Infectious Diseases. 2012 February;25(1):86-91..

In many cases, young people are not vaccinated because they (or their families) don’t understand exactly what HPV is and how the vaccine works. For that to happen, families need to educate themselves about how this virus affects both men and women, and learn about the advantages and disadvantages of getting the HPV vaccine Improving adolescent health: focus on HPV vaccine acceptance. Zimet GD. Department of Pediatrics, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, IN, USA. The Journal of Adolescent Health. 2005 December;37(6 Suppl):S17-23..

Most importantly, the CDC’s latest data shows the HPV vaccine actually works and can significantly reduce instances of cervical cancer and genital warts. The current challenge isn’t creating a way to prevent HPV, but convincing people to use the medication that’s already available.

Did you receive the HPV vaccine as a teenager? Would you repeat the experience and/or vaccinate your own children given the choice? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.

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