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Let's talk about the HPV vaccine

September 14, 2011

If you’ve been keeping up with the news this week, you’ve likely heard the debate brewing over the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. If you’re the parent of a teenager or a teenager yourself, you’re probably more than a little concerned.

During Monday night’s Republican presidential candidate’s debate, several candidates took issue with Gov. Rick Perry’s 2007 decision to mandate that girls in Texas receive a vaccine that protects against HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that is linked with cervical cancer. It was, however, the subsequent statements made by Rep. Michele Bachmann about the HPV vaccine that have parents worried and the medical community speaking out.

In an interview on the Today Show Tuesday, Bachmann expressed concern that the vaccine is “potentially a very dangerous drug.” She went on to tell of her meeting with the mother of a little girl who “took that injection, that vaccine, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.” Bachmann’s parting words: “people have to draw their own conclusion.”

Fortunately, we have a wealth of scientific knowledge that can help us draw our own fact-based conclusion. So, let’s talk about what we know about HPV and its vaccine:

What is HPV?

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States, and it affects more than half of all sexually active men and women at some time in their lives. Currently, there are an estimated 20 million Americans infected with the virus, and 6 million more Americans will become infected each year.

Often, the virus does not produce any symptoms and goes away on its own. However, the virus can cause cervical cancer, which is the 2nd leading cause of cancer deaths in women. It can also cause a variety of other less common cancers in men and women as well as genital warts.

Why get vaccinated?

Each year 11,000 women are diagnosed and 4,000 women die of cervical cancer. This vaccine is important because it can prevent most cases of cervical cancers in women if given before the woman is exposed to the virus.

Why is the vaccine recommended for girls as young as 11 and 12 years old?

For a vaccine to be fully effective, it must be given before a person has been exposed to the virus from which it is protecting. By giving the vaccine to young girls, it affords them protection from the virus before they’ve likely been exposed.

Is the HPV vaccine safe?

To date, 35 million doses of the vaccine have been distributed in the United States. Studies show that the most common side effects from the vaccine tend to be pain, redness and swelling at the site of injection. Less than one out of every 1,000 patients experienced a serious side effect. In the cases where serious side effects were reported after vaccination, there was no evidence that the vaccine was the cause of the event. There have been no reports of the vaccine being linked to mental retardation.

Arnold Palmer Hospital’s Director of Adolescent Medicine, Vinny Chulani, MD, MSEd, has this to say:

“In my opinion, the HPV vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective. Not only have I reviewed the science behind the vaccines, but I also trust the solid vaccine adverse effects reporting systems that are in place. These allow us to monitor vaccine adverse effects, and there have been no safety concerns raised regarding the HPV vaccine. I have dispensed thousands of doses of the vaccine in my practice and have not encountered any concerning adverse effects.

I encounter many parents who are concerned about vaccines causing autism or developmental delays. I take this as an opportunity to review the science behind vaccines and the many studies that show that vaccines are not causally related to autism or mental retardation.”

So, then what do we make of Michele Bachmann’s comments on the vaccine?

The medical consensus is very clear. There is no scientific basis for the claim that the HPV vaccine is related to mental retardation. There is no scientific basis for the claim that the vaccine is dangerous. These statements are false and misleading.

My take on it? Cancer is a formidable enemy; we should fight it with every weapon we have. I bet if you asked any woman with cervical cancer, she would say the same.