Good News! HPV Vaccine Is Reducing Infection Rates in U.S. Girls

The entire universe in blog form
June 21 2013 8:00 AM

HPV Vaccine Is Working. Again.

HPV on the decline
Human papillomavirus infections rates are declining among U.S. girls who have been vaccinated.

Photo by Peeradach Rattanakoses/Shutterstock(modified by Phil Plait)

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a highly infectious disease. Tens of millions of people carry this virus, and some strains can cause all sorts of horrid medical conditions, like genital warts in men and women, and several types of cancer, including cervical cancer in women. In the United States alone, 4,000 women die every year from cervical cancer, roughly one-third of the number who get it.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Two vaccines to prevent HPV infection were introduced a few years back, Gardasil and Cervarix. A new study, as reported by the New York Times and NBC News, shows the vaccine has been a huge success: HPV infection rates have dropped by a staggering 50 percent in U.S. teen girls since the introduction of the vaccine. This is despite the low uptake rate; only about a third of teens 13 to 17 have received the full course of three shots.

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These results jibe well with an earlier report from Australia, too. There, HPV infection rates dropped 59 percent in girls and women ages 12 to 26, and 39 percent in boys and men.

This is great news! Now all we need to do is get more parents to give their girls and boys the vaccine. (Gardasil is recommended for both sexes, and Cervarix is just for girls). As the Times reports:

Dr. Frieden [of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] said the low vaccination rate in the United States means that 50,000 girls alive today will eventually develop fatal cervical cancer, deaths that could have been prevented if the country’s rate had been at 80 percent. For every year the rate lags, another 4,400 girls will develop cervical cancer in their lifetimes, he said*.

Not that this will be easy. The vaccine raised a hue and a cry from both the antivax left, and the sexually conservative right—HPV is a sexually transmitted disease. However, the NBC article reports that the CDC has found no evidence of major adverse effects, nor has there been an increase in sexual activity among girls who have had the shots. So really, no one should complain.

But they will. This isn’t an issue people decide based on facts, it’s an issue they decide based on emotion and bias. That’s too bad, because a decision this important should be made through a careful analysis of the evidence, not on antiscience.

For the record: My own daughter received all three shots several years ago. My wife and I feel pretty good about that.

If you’re a parent, talk to your board-certified doctor to find out more, and read the links I’ve provided above as well. Science and medicine are providing you with a simple way to protect your children from terrible, and potentially fatal, diseases. As a parent myself, that’s something I take very seriously.

Tip o’ the protein capsid to Mark Gurwell.

* UPDATE (June 21, 2013 at 15:00 UTC): This passage quoting Dr. Frieden originally appeared on the NYT article, but apparently has subsequently been removed. It can still be found in other online articles, however, for example here and here.

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