The HPV vaccine

Does it promote promiscuity or save lives?

While there is a small but vocal percentage of people who are leery of vaccines of all kinds, the vaccine for genital human papillomavirus (HPV) has more than its share of controversy. That’s because, unlike the measles, or H1N1, HPV cannot be transmitted through casual exposure, but requires intimate contact to be transmitted. Add to this the fact that the individuals targeted for vaccination are girls ages 9 through 12 and you are treading in the sensitive zone of sexual mores.


Genital human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection. In 90 percent of cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV naturally within two years. But sometimes, certain types of HPV (there are more than 40 HPV types) can cause genital warts in males and females. Other HPV types can cause cervical cancer. The vaccine is marketed under the brand name Gardasil. According to the manufacturer, Merck & Co., “Gardasil helps protect against 2 types of HPV that cause about 75 percent of cervical cancer cases, and 2 more types that cause 90 percent of genital warts cases.”


Young girls are targeted


The HPV vaccine activates a girl’s immune system before she’s likely to encounter the virus during her sexually active years, so vaccinating at earlier ages allows for the highest antibody levels, which translates to greater protection. The HPV is given in a series of three shots over six months. “The older the girl, the less response time to fight off the virus,” says Dr. Lezode Kipoliongo, of Crystal Run Healthcare in Middletown. “The key is for girls to get the vaccination before they become sexually active.” Not all doctors share this view. “I don’t believe we need to start vaccinating girls that early,” says Dr. Wha Ja Choi MD, who specializes in pediatrics at the Fishkill Medical Center in Fishkill.


Maria Vinciguerra, a Fishkill mother of three daughters, not only disagrees with vaccinating her girls early, but also believes the vaccine is unproven. “In ten years, I don’t want studies to report that girls vaccinated are now sterile.” According to a new study by the University of Manchester (published in the British Journal of Cancer), nearly 80 percent of girls who received Gardasil said that having the vaccine made them think twice about the risks of having sex. The survey focused on the girls’ feelings, not their parents, and helped debunk the notion that girls might begin to have sex younger if they were vaccinated.

Angela Batchelor is a freelance writer in Fishkill. Her essays were published in Contemporary American Women: Our Defining Passages (All Things That Matter Press, 2010).

Read here for more on a parent's perspective on the HPV vaccine.