Even the most pro-vaccine parent-- like me -- stops and wonders when the pediatrician asks about the HPV vaccine for a preteen or barely teen-aged daughter. The vaccine’s benefits are clear and compelling; it’s proven to cut risk for a lingering infection with human papilloma virus strains most likely to cause cervical cancer. But in explaining the vaccine to your child, even if you use it as another chance to talk about values and expectations and physical and emotional health, are you still crossing a line -- and subtly saying “OK, the truth is I know you’re going to be sexually active sooner rather than later and it’s OK by me”?
Now, a new study from the Kaiser Permanent Center for Health Research-Southeast says girls who receive the HPV vaccine aren’t more sexually active -- at least in the first three years after their shots. Researchers tracked 1,398 girls for 3 years starting at age 11 or 12; 493 had received the HPV vaccine and 905 did not. They didn’t directly ask the girls about sexually activity. Instead, they looked at how many in each group came back to their doctor’s office within three years with a medical need that was a sign of sexual activity -- like a request for birth control, for a pregnancy test or for a check for a sexually-transmitted disease like chlamydia.
The result: The researchers conclude that the HPV vaccine wasn’t a “license for early sex.” Nearly equal numbers of girls in each group came in with health needs related to sex. The numbers aren’t exactly equal, however. The girls in the HPV vaccine group were slightly more likely to ask about birth control, chlamydia checks or pregnancy testing. But their chances for actually having chlamydia or being pregnant were nearly equal to those of the non-vaccinated girls -- in fact, they were a tiny, tiny bit lower. The researchers say the differences in numbers are so small that they’re insignificant -- and show that HPV-vaccinated girls are no more likely to be sexually active early. “In our analysis,HPV vaccination at ages 11 through12 did not increase the likelihood ofseeking medical attention for outcomesrelated to sexual activity with upto 3 years of follow-up,” they soberly state.
That doesn’t mean parents can skip conversations about sex when it’s time for this vaccine. While sex among 15- 17-year olds is down (from 39% in 1995 to 27% in 2010), that still means one in four girls is sexually active by the time she’s a high school junior or senior. And 3% have sex before age 13. It’s also smart to tell your daughter that the HPV vaccine doesn’t protect her against other sexually-transmitted diseases. About one in four young women mistakenly believe it does.
The researchers note that teen sexual activity carries a high risk for HPV infection -- an argument in favor of saying yes to the vaccine. One in three sexually-active 14- to 19-year-olds is infected with at least one HPV strain and 12% carry one of the four strains most likely to cause cervical cancer if a girl’s immune system doesn’t wipe it out. A good reason to say yes to this vaccine. And to the opportunity for a frank talk about sex.