Human Papillomaviruses (HPV) cause some of the most common sexually transmitted infections, with about25% of Americans carrying at least one the 40 strains. While some of these viruses are harmless, others can cause genital warts or even cervical, vaginal, penile, throat, or anal cancers.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a vaccine against the most dangerous strains of HPV in 2006. It comes in a series of 3 injections given over the course of 8 months.
The vaccine has been an incredible success since its introduction, with these 5 points becoming very clear:
1. The vaccines protect against the worst strains of HPV.
There are multiple kinds of vaccines available, and they are differentiated by how many HPV strains they prevent.
The first prevents types 16 and 18, which cause about 70% of all cervical cancer cases. This vaccine is only available to girls, as boys don't really need to worry about cervical cancer. The second also prevents 16 and 18, along with 2 other types that cause nearly all cases of genital warts. The FDA also approved a vaccine that protects against 9 HPV strains in 2014, available to boys and girls.
2. The HPV vaccine is recommended for boys and girls 11-12 years old.
While most parents don't want to think about their child becoming sexually active, it's important to receive the full series of vaccines before they are at risk for coming into contact with the virus. However, it can be given up to age 26.
The average person loses their virginity during their teen years, so the earlier the risk can be managed, the better.
Some groups who oppose the vaccine claimed that it would encourage teens to have sex, but that has proven to be untrue.
3. The vaccine is safe.
While nothing in life is 100% safe (even drinking water can be lethal in large enough quantities), the HPV vaccine has a great safety record, even after 10 million doses have been administered. There are some mild reactions possible, including low-grade fevers, but it's still much better than getting genital warts or cancer.
There are some anti-vaccination groups spreading misinformation that thousands of people have had severe side effects including death. This is grossly overstated. While there have been over 100 people who have died in the days and weeks after getting the vaccine, they were all found to be unrelated to the vaccine itself.
4. HPV rates in teens have dropped 64% since the vaccine was introduced.
It's easy to see how effective the vaccine is by looking at HPV rates over time. According to a new study in Pediatrics, HPV among teen girls in the United States 14-19 has dropped a staggering 64% since the introduction of the vaccine. For women ages 20-24, HPV was reduced by 34%.
5. Vaccine rates are much lower in the U.S. than in other parts of the world.
Despite the fact that the HPV vaccine has been shown to be safe and effective, it hasn't been embraced in the U.S.
In the US, only about a third of girls and a fifth of boys that are of the age to receive the vaccine have done so. In the UK it's 60%; in Australia, 70%. Teen girls in Rwanda, meanwhile, have an impressive 93% vaccination rate.
As The New York Times explains, there are several reasons for the discouragingly low vaccination rates in the US. The HPV vaccine isn't mandatory in the US, which also means that some insurance companies won't cover it. Some parents are also closed off to discussions even tangentially related to their pre-teens becoming sexually active, and as a result, leave them unprotected for when they do.
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