Cervical cancer vaccines are a good thing. Let me repeat that: Cervical cancer vaccines are a good thing.
Almost all of humanity will have HPV at some point in their lives. If you’re human and have sex, well, it’s a safe bet you’ll encounter HPV: It’s a fact of life.
Most HPV infections are harmless and go away on their own, but it doesn’t always work this way: each year in the U.S. there are over 30,000 HPV-related cancers. And that’s not even talking about 300,000-plus cases of genital warts (the types of HPV that cause warts are different from those linked with cancers).
This week, Katie Couric’s show (Katie) aired an extensive segment on HPV vaccines. Rather than offering a thoughtful discussion, the episode was a sensationalist muck of misinformation.
Appearing on the show was a mother who says her daughter’s death a few weeks after receiving an HPV vaccine was caused by the shots. Also profiled was a young woman who, along with her mom, blames the vaccine for a variety of ailments she says she’s endured. Both women were offered as cautionary tales, and an HPV expert was on hand to sagely intone the need to weigh the benefits of vaccination versus the risks. To be sure, we don’t wish to minimize the suffering of these families and patients – our hearts go out to the mom who lost her daughter as well as the other young woman who’s been dealing with a variety of health issues. We believe they are both sincere and deserving of compassion – we’ll just gently say we think they’re misguided.
Some background: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that roughly 57 million doses of HPV vaccines have been given since the first of the vaccines became available in 2006. Through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), CDC and the FDA collect, investigate, and publish their findings related to reports of “adverse events” (side effects) with all vaccines licensed in the U.S.
Let’s be clear: vaccine safety is taken seriously, and claims from those who believe they’ve been injured by an immunization are researched and reported. And what do the experts tell us about HPV vaccine safety?
There have been a number of similar accounts from around the world along the lines of those featured on Katie, of course, stories of various maladies cropping up after someone gets an HPV jab. What’s usually (conveniently?) overlooked in these stories is that when experts and authorities follow-up and investigate these claims, they never find any link between the HPV vaccines and any serious adverse events. Nada.
Just because someone reports getting a side effect related to a vaccine doesn’t mean the vaccine caused it, of course. And that’s the rub: I can tell you I turned purple after my latest immunization and someone can, in a technically-correct sort of way, trumpet a headline Man Says Cancer Jab Turned Him Purple. Even if I did in fact develop a new hue to my skin tone and it happened for reasons having nothing to do with the shots, that piece usually gets lost in translation.
The evidence (you know, those pesky facts that often get in the way) tells us that not only are HPV vaccines safe, but they actually work really well. Research shows that in the first four years HPV vaccination was available in the U.S., infections with the HPV types covered by the vaccine dropped in 14-19 year old girls by 56%. The kicker? Only about half of adolescent girls have had even one of the shots in the series, and fewer than 1/3 have had all three doses!
The duration of protection was also questioned on the Katie Show, with an expert implying the shots essentially stop working after only five years. Actually, current studies indicate the vaccines likely convey at least 9-10 years’ worth of protection (future research may find protection lasts longer, too). Studies are on-going to see if booster shots are needed and – if in fact they are- we’ll know well in advance before protection wanes.
HPV vaccines are a public health triumph not only women’s health, but men's too. As the numbers above tell you, we’re having a dickens of a time getting these vaccines to enough young people as it is…and now comes Katie. How many women (and men) will now develop an HPV-related disease because of these sensationalistic comments that simply aren’t backed by facts?
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