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Misconceptions Surrounding the HPV Vaccine Could Undermine Disease Prevention

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Recently, controversy and misinformation have surrounded the HPV vaccine, an immunization to prevent cervical cancer. One frequently cited study linking vaccines to autism was retracted in 2010 because the author falsified information and used unethical practices. In September, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a presidential hopeful, stated on NBC's Today show that the HPV vaccine "could potentially be a very dangerous drug" causing "mental retardation," a claim quickly refuted by the medical community.

  "There is no link between the HPV vaccine and any form of mental disability," says Dr. Jennifer Baur, an OB/GYN with East Jefferson General Hospital. "There have been no conclusive findings on detrimental side effects other than a little site pain from the shot and a few other mild symptoms like nausea and headache, which disappear shortly after receiving the vaccine. Anything else would be extremely rare."

  HPV (human papillomavirus) is the most commonly spread sexually transmitted disease in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) website, approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with the disease. "HPV is so common that at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives," the website states.

  There are more than 100 strains of HPV, 40 of which infect the genital area, but only a few pose health problems. "The Gardasil vaccine (for HPV) is recommended to help in the prevention of genital warts and cervical cancer, but it only prevents people from contracting four of the most high-risk types of HPV that cause warts and cancer," Baur says.

  Although genital warts are not dangerous, they can cause discomfort, embarrassment and emotional distress. The more serious need for the vaccine is to protect women against cervical cancer. The CDC reports that in the United States, 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 4,000 women die from the disease every year. The strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer usually don't cause warts or other symptoms, so women can unknowingly harbor the virus and early-stage cervical cancer.

  However, genital warts and pre-cancerous cells are not inevitable ends for people who have contracted HPV. Some individuals never exhibit any symptoms at all. "At one time, it was thought once you contracted the virus, you had it for life, but now we are finding that in some cases, the body seems to cure itself, particularly in a young person with a healthy immune system," Baur says. "We're seeing abnormal pap smears that, over time, become completely normal. In older adults, we don't think it's as easy for the immune system to get rid of. We think the possibility of your body getting rid of the virus is better when you're younger."

  Despite the obvious benefits, the HPV vaccine is still regarded with some skepticism. Baur speculates that debate over Gardasil is fueled, in part, by a general squeamishness about of linking young girls to sexually transmitted diseases.

  "(The HPV vaccine) doesn't encourage sexual activity," Baur says. "I think some parents feel concerned that it will promote promiscuity, but the HPV vaccine is actually an opportunity to educate children and teens about sex and sexually transmitted diseases."

  Because the virus is so common, vaccinating girls before they become sexually active is the safest way to ensure their protection, Baur says. The HPV vaccine is recommended for girls between 11 and 26 years old, and it is approved for girls as young as 9. The vaccine is administered in three doses over six months. Recently, the FDA also approved the vaccine for boys ages 9-26 to prevent the spread of genital warts and protect against anal cancer. The health risks for males contracting HPV are much lower, however, so the vaccine is not widely administered them.

  Despite the extra protection the new HPV vaccine provides, Baur notes, "It doesn't provide complete protection against cervical cancer, so it is still important for women to get a pap smear every year."

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