By Michael Yudell
Here at The Public’s Health last week, Nan Feyler discussed the underused human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine and asked whether we should, like many other vaccines, mandate it for school entry. Some critics of the vaccine have expressed concern that its use will cause girls to “treat sex more loosely.” A new study goes a long way toward putting these concerns to rest.
The study, published online Monday by the journal Pediatrics, found that “receipt of HPV vaccine by 11- to 12- year-old girls was not associated with clinical markers of increased sexual activity-related outcomes, such as sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy.” By following these young girls for three years, the researchers found no statistically significant difference between the groups as they came of age sexually — no difference in having taken a pregnancy test, been tested for STDs, or been counseled for the use of contraceptives.
Other studies have made similar findings, though this is the first to rigorously examine actual outcomes that would be associated with unsafe sex, rather than the less reliable method of asking girls — or anyone else, for that matter — to self-report changes in their sexual behavior following immunization.
What this finding will mean for rates of HPV vaccination remains uncertain. Because HPV can cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers in women, and genital warts and anal cancer in both men and women, and because the vaccine can prevent HPV infection and thus prevent cases of these cancers, it seems a no-brainer that parents would want to given their children extra protection against potentially deadly tumors.
Still, even though we now know that girls are not becoming more promiscuous post-vaccination, public health officials need to engage the concerns of parents (even if they’ve been debunked) — and continue to educate them about the efficacy of the vaccine and the potentially deadly risks associated with the human papillomavirus.
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