We know some of you might have been concerned by recent news reports questioning the safety of the HPV vaccine. Unfortunately, much of the information in these reports is misleading or ill-informed. We’d like to take this opportunity to dispel some of the misinformation by sharing what science and research have shown and discussing what the true risks and benefits of the vaccine are.
How do we know the HPV vaccine is 100 percent safe?
The answer is: It’s not. Vaccines today are safer than they’ve ever been, but no medical intervention is 100 percent risk-free. That’s because not all human bodies are the same. Just like some individuals can be allergic to strawberries or penicillin, there will always the possibility (however small) that someone is allergic to a vaccine component. As much as we would like it to be, medicine is not one-fits-all. There will always be risks for some individuals, and we can’t always anticipate who those individuals will be.
What is really important to know is: Do the benefits of getting the HPV vaccine outweigh the risks?
To answer that, let’s first look at what the true risks of the HPV vaccine are.
Prior to being licensed, all vaccines have to go through rigorous testing to assess its safety and effectiveness. This process is more intense and thorough than systems for other pharmaceutical products because they are meant to keep healthy people healthy. Researchers have to prove time and time again in hundreds or (more likely) thousands of people that the vaccine produces minimal side effects (if any) and that it is effective at protecting people from disease.
The HPV vaccine was tested with roughly 30,000 individuals over several years to identify any potential side effects. What the researchers found was that the vaccine might lead to a slight increased risk of fainting (which is common among adolescents after any injection), and, like many vaccines, a little soreness and redness where the vaccine was administered.
After vaccines are approved, we continue to monitor them to ensure they are safe and effective. One of the ways we do this is through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).
Anyone can report any side effect or adverse event after a dose of vaccine — even if they aren’t certain the vaccine was the cause. The reporting process is purposefully open and inclusive, so that health officials can spot extremely rare side effects that might not have shown up during clinical trials. It’s also a way to identify certain risk factors that might increase a person ‘s chances of having a bad reaction. If we can identify those risk factors, we can let doctors know that patients with these risk factors should not receive the vaccine.
Since its release in 2006, over 56 million doses of HPV vaccine have been administered in the United States, and since then, approximately 22,000 adverse events have been reported to VAERS — most of them mild issues like headache, soreness or nausea. Even still, this doesn’t mean that the vaccine caused those 22,000 bad reactions. All these reports can tell us is that those events happened after a dose of HPV vaccine was given.
As an example, say you eat a bowl of Cheerios and then get into a car accident. It doesn’t mean that Cheerios cause car accidents. It could very likely be that you just happened to eat Cheerios and then got into a car accident simply by chance. The two aren’t necessarily linked.
People develop or suffer from a wide range of medical issues every day. Some of those reports could have been caused by the vaccine, yes, but some were probably caused by something else entirely.
What’s important to know is whether those who received the vaccine were more likely to develop those issues than those who didn’t get the vaccine.
And so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been investigating the most serious of these reports using another tool called the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) to see whether those who receive the HPV vaccine do, in fact, have an increased risk. What they found was that those who received the HPV vaccine weren’t any more likely to experience things like seizures, ovarian failure, Guillain-Barre syndrome or stroke than those who didn’t get the HPV vaccine. The biggest risks associated with HPV vaccination appear to be a little soreness or swelling at the injection site.
It’s also important to note that while the vaccine has not changed since its release in 2006 and more people have been vaccinated, the number of adverse events reported have actually gone down — suggesting that many of these reports were likely fueled more by fear and media hype than anything to do with the vaccine itself.
Those are the risks. Now let’s talk about the benefits of the HPV vaccine.
HPV is extremely common. Nearly everybody will be infected with HPV at some point in their lifetime. Even if they remain virgins until they’re married. Even if they only have one partner. Even if they use condoms. HPV is spread through contact, so condoms don’t fully protect against it. And it’s not necessary to have sex in the traditional sense to become infected.
Thankfully, most people who are infected with HPV are able to clear the infection fairly quickly on their own within 1-2 years without ever realizing they even had it. But there are many different types of HPV, so even if you’ve already been infected once, you can still be infected by other types. And some of those types can lead to cancer.
HPV is responsible for an estimated 5 percent of all cancers worldwide in both men and women. In the U.S. alone, HPV is associated with more than 30,000 new cases of cancers every year. While cervical cancer is the most well-known of these cancers, HPV can also lead to throat cancers, anal cancers and penile cancers.
The HPV vaccine can prevent cancer-causing HPV. It’s too soon to have direct proof that the HPV vaccine prevents cancer directly — that will take years. But we already have evidence that it has been extremely successful at reducing the rate of the types of HPV most often associated with cancer, as well as the incidence of cancer precursors.
TL;DR: This vaccine helps reduce our children’s risk of cancer. And large-scale, quality studies have shown that most side effects of the vaccine are extremely mild and temporary.
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