COMMENTARY

HPV Vaccine and Sexual Activity: Any Relationship?

Paul A. Offit, MD

Disclosures

January 17, 2012

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Hi, my name is Paul Offit. I am talking to you today from the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. What I want to talk about is an article on the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that recently appeared in American Journal of Preventive Medicine.[1]

The first HPV vaccine, called Gardasil®, contains serotypes 6, 11, 16, and 18 and came out in 2006. At that time, it was recommended for girls only. This past year, the vaccine was also recommended for boys. When the vaccine came out, there were a number of issues that were of concern to parents. People wondered whether the vaccine was really safe. There were questions about whether it caused blood clots, with consequent strokes and heart attacks. There were questions about whether it caused chronic fatigue syndrome. More recently, in September 2011, during the Republican national debates, Michele Bachmann raised the question of whether the HPV vaccine could cause severe developmental delays, which she referred to as "mental retardation." So, there has been a lot of fear surrounding this vaccine.

In fact, none of those concerns are true. A number of studies have shown that the HPV vaccine does not cause chronic fatigue syndrome, blood clots, strokes, or heart attacks. But another issue was raised that really hasn't been addressed until this article was published, and that is the question of whether getting an HPV vaccine increases your desire for sexual activity -- or, said another way, promiscuity.

The researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, headed by Lauri Markowitz, looked at this. In their article titled "Human Papillomavirus Vaccine and Sexual Behavior Among Adolescent and Young Women," they looked at whether those who got the HPV vaccine were more likely to be promiscuous than those who did not. The answer was, not surprisingly, no. It doesn't make sense that that would have ever been true. First of all, no vaccine is 100% effective. Second, this particular vaccine protects against about 70% of strains that cause cervical cancer and 90% of strains that cause anal and genital warts. So, it's not even 100% effective against all strains of HPV. Obviously, the vaccine does not prevent other sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, or herpes.

The concern never made sense. It's like making an argument that once I get a tetanus-containing vaccine, I can feel comfortable running through a bed of rusty nails. I don't think that is true either. I think we can now feel comfortable about the safety of this vaccine and also the notion of whether it increases sexual activity or promiscuity.

The problem with HPV vaccine is that people haven't been very good about getting it. Only about one third of girls and young women for whom this vaccine is recommended get it. Hopefully, we can be better at encouraging vaccine use, and hopefully this study will make people feel more comfortable about the vaccine. Thank you.

Related Resource
Prevent HPV

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