What Should I Know About The HPV Vaccine?

January 11, 2011

The HPV vaccine is designed to combat the most symptomatic strains of HPV, 16 and 18 (which cause cancer, most famously cervical cancer). The vaccine is administered in 3 shots over a series of months. There are two vaccines, Gardasil, which also protects against strains 6 and 11 (which cause the majority of genital warts) and Cervarix.

The FDA approves of the HPV vaccine as safe and effective, although many have come forward sighting a number of problems, including a high rate of deaths and adverse reactions from the vaccine. The number of deaths and serious reactions is generally assumed to be under-reported because it can be hard to know what to attribute certain reactions to, and doctors are not inclined to blame something they recommended (like a vaccine).

What About These Deaths and Adverse Reactions?

First, two things: 1) the HPV vaccine is recommended for and targeted to young persons, between the ages of 12 and 24 (children in ads for the vaccine continue to get younger), and 2) vaccines in general are not recommended for people with health conditions, particularly immuno-compromised patients, as they are more likely to have an adverse reaction without developing the antibodies the vaccine is designed to provoke.

In the case of serious diseases like polio and pertussis, it can benefit the sick (a child with cancer, etc.) for healthy people to get a vaccine that “bubbles” the sick person from the disease so they do not need the vaccine themselves. This is why many schools traditionally require certain vaccines (these days, it seems the requirements are skewing political…).

In general, many of the HPV vaccine-associated ways of dying have been of heart failure. Given that young people are not typically prone to die of a sudden heart attack, and that doctors are supposed to screen the health of patients before administering vaccines (not to mention parents proactive enough to vaccinate their children with a non-mandated shot probably also get them regular check-ups), it’s unlikely that the heart attacks were from causes other than the vaccine (as some in the medical profession purport). Even if some of those who died after receiving the HPV vaccine had a predisposition to heart failure, it’s not useful if the vaccine set it off.

Why would the HPV vaccine cause heart failure and other adverse reactions? There is a base serum upon which the vaccine is based the acts as a preservative and carrier of the vaccine, and it contains a number of chemicals known to be harmful, particularly after injection (aluminum and polysorbate 80 are the most infamous; polysorbate 80 can potentially cause anaphylactic shock after injection, or a severe allergic reaction). With three injections, there are three chances to have an adverse reaction to the HPV vaccine.

But Do The Benefits Out-Way The Risks?

Probably not. Over their lives, over 80% of the American population will have one or more strains of HPV, and at any given time about 26% is actively carrying an HPV infection–about 3% of those are carrying the high-risk kind that the HPV vaccines prevent.

Although known as an STD because the cancerous-kind is spread through genital, anal, and oral skin-to-skin contact, HPV can spread through touch, and so is very hard to prevent. It’s also very hard to know if you have it–it can’t be detected on tests until your body makes antibodies, or until abnormal skin cells show up (precancerous lesions won’t show up until the infection has been working for decades–sooner if the immune system is weak).

Knowing if you already have HPV is very important before getting the HPV vaccine–not only does the HPV vaccine not help those with HPV, it can make you more likely to develop abnormal cells.

Most sexually active adults have already been exposed to HPV types 16 &18 (that can cause cancer) and so the vaccine is not helpful for them–which is why it’s marketed for pre-pubescents (about 70% of Americans begin sexual activity in high school).

Unfortunately, the efficacy of the vaccine is only proven for about 5 years, and is estimated at being effective up until 8 years (although future tests may prove a longer efficacy). That means that protection against the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer and genital warts will not follow children into their adult (sexually active) lives–people between the ages of 20-24 are most likely to have an active strain of HPV, if a child is vaccinated at twelve, the protection may wear off or before he reaches 20.

Finally, cervical cancer is most likely to affect women in their 50s (so although it affects reproductive organs, most women are done having children when they are affected). The mortality rate for cervical cancer is low-less than 4000 a year, many of which could be prevented with regular exams (and education about the importance of regular exams). The vaccine, and any risks it may have affects young women and men, before they’ve reached child-bearing years or even a quarter of their life.

So What Do I Do?

As with all medical and health related decisions, whether or not to vaccinate is a personal decision. Based on your lifestyle, family history, and other health risks, you may decide vaccination will be of benefit to you.

In any case, the most important thing to prevent cervical cancer (which can also infect other genital skin, including the penis, vagina, and vulva, as well as oral skin and the anus) is to maintain a strong immune system. 90% of HPV infections are beaten by the immune system without any symptoms or problems.

For that other 10%, it’s critical that you see your doctor regularly, and get checked for abnormal skin cells. A Pap test traditionally checks women’s cervical cells, and should be done yearly beginning at age 21 or after becoming sexually active. You can get other tests if you’re a man, or if you’re worried about other parts of your body.

Although condoms do not offer 100% protection against HPV (spread skin-to-skin, not by fluids, as other diseases like hepatitis and HIV are), using a personal lubricant containing carrageenan (derived from red seaweed) may be very effective at preventing HPV transmission.

How do you feel about vaccines in general? About HPV in particular? Share your thoughts or stories in the comments!

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