Why is the HPV Vaccine Still Controversial?
Breaking News: Vaccines work. Even vaccines for a sexually transmitted/cancer-causing virus. Who knew?
Federal health officials said Wednesday that the prevalence of human papillomavirus, the principal cause of cervical cancer popularly known as HPV, has decreased by half among teen girls. This is totally thanks to the HPV vaccine.
These are wild results considering only a third of American teenage girls have received the full dose of the vaccine. (For comparison, Denmark and the UK breached 80 percent, and Rwanda’s vaccination rate has reached 80 percent.)
From the New York Times:
“These are striking results,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “They should be a wake-up call that we need to increase vaccination rates. The bottom line is this: It is possible to protect the next generation from cancer, and we need to do it.”
Did you read that? It’s possible to protect a generation from cancer. And yet parents are still reluctant to vaccinate their daughters.
The sharp decline in the infection rate comes at a time of deepening worry among doctors and public health officials about the limited use of the HPV vaccine in the United States. Health departments across the country are scrambling for ways to increase vaccination rates, while nonprofit groups are using postcard reminders and social media campaigns and pediatricians are being encouraged to convince families of the vaccine’s benefits.
There are some signs that resistance to the vaccine may be growing. A study published in the journal Pediatrics in March found that 44 percent of parents in 2010 said they did not intend to vaccinate their daughters, up from 40 percent in 2008. Because it prevents a sexually transmitted infection, the vaccine comes with a stigma. Some parents worry it promotes promiscuity. And it has been controversial. During the Republican primary in 2011, Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, said the vaccine could have “dangerous side effects,” a concern that health officials say is unfounded.
Most of the side effects related to the vaccine have been minor, and more serious side effects like fainting and redness and swelling near the injection site are temporary. The Centers for Disease Control have investigated 42 deaths among vaccine recipients, but haven’t found a link.
Long story short: The vaccine is safe, and apparently mad effective.
The rate of HPV infection went down to 3.6 percent in 2010 from 7.2 percent in 2006. The drop was even more dramatic – 56 percent – when the vaccine included two strains of the virus that cause genital warts. Prior to the introduction of the vaccine, infection rates of those strains were flat, which lends credence to the idea that the vaccine is causing the decline. The vaccine wasn’t approved for boys until this year. That data won’t be available until 2015.
But what does this mean in real terms? It means with this vaccine, we could prevent thousands of deaths. According to the New York Times:
There are about 12,000 cases of cervical cancer and 4,000 deaths a year in the United States. At current vaccination rates, the vaccine would prevent 45,000 cases of cervical cancer and 14,000 deaths among girls now age 13 and younger over the course of their lifetimes, according to C.D.C. estimates. Increasing the rate to 80 percent could prevent an additional 53,000 cancers and nearly 17,000 deaths.
Whoa. I’m speechless. These numbers are staggering. We could prevent tens of thousand of cervical cancer cases. We can save thousands of lives. I’m absolutely dumbfounded.
This is an amazing victory for modern science. All we have to do now is get rid of the stigma, and we really could protect an entire generation from cancer.
Image credit: Flickr