Setting the record straight on HPV

By now, Michele Bachmann’s remarks about the HPV vaccination may be old news. But they still infuriate me, so I’m going to set the record straight on HPV and the corresponding vaccine.

Let me rewind to last week’s Republican debate. The hilariously off-center (and I refer to her sanity here, not political leanings) Michele Bachmann attacked Rick Perry for his 2007 executive order mandating young girls in Texas to be vaccinated against HPV, a common STI and leading cause of cervical cancer in women.

I realize that vaccinating children is controversial. But, for me, this specific one is a no brainer: vaccinate against cervical cancer.

Unsurprisingly, Michele and I differ in our opinions on the HPV vaccine.  Whereas I view it as a potentially life-saving medicine with limitless benefits, she views it as some sort of morally incorrigible, forced government intrusion:

To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong. That should never be done. That’s a violation of a liberty interest.

A quick aside that I can’t resist: it’s incredibly ironic – hmm, moronic may be a better descriptor – that she’s against the government intervening to save girls from cancer, but has no problem squeezing the government into folks’ bedrooms.

But I digress.

HPV is incredibly common – so common that it’s the #1 STI. According to the CDC, HPV infections can cause genital warts and a variety of cancers in addition to cervical cancer, including cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx. This shit is no joke; hence the need for regular cancer screenings as well as vaccinations.

In response to the backlash created by Bachmann’s comments, news outlets began interviewing medical experts and reporting on the vaccine’s safety and life-saving ability. For example, NPR interviewed Dr. Jessica Kahn of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, who elaborated the importance of the vaccine:

The vaccines that are licensed currently protect against four different types of HPV – Human Papillomavirus. One of the vaccines protects against HPV six and 11, which cause almost all genital warts, and both of the licensed HPV vaccines protect against HPV 16 and 18, which cause most cervical cancers and other HPV-related cancers. Now, the vaccines are about 90 to 100 percent effective in preventing infection with the Human Papillomavirus types that are targeted by the vaccines, and similarly they’re between 90 and 100 percent effective in preventing pre-cancers that are caused by those HPV types.

It’s important for kids to get the vaccine before they are exposed to HPV because the vaccines are not effective if they are administered after exposure to the HPV types that they target. And what’s really important to understand about HPV is that it’s spread through skin-to-skin genital contact. It’s not spread through bodily fluids, so a young person doesn’t have to have sexual intercourse to acquire HPV. And many young people in the early- and mid-teens are experimenting with such behaviors and thus they acquire HPV very early on in the teen years. So, for example, in a recent study that was done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 percent of the 14- to 19-year-old young women had already acquired HPV.

I think the point that one can contract HPV without having sex needs to be emphasized. So much of the anti-choice agenda – which has dangerously expanded beyond anti-abortion to include anti-birth control and anti-HPV vaccine efforts – seems to be about punishing young women for engaging in sex.  But alas! You don’t need to have sex to get HPV – meaning the vaccine it isn’t the “sex vaccine,” which its opponents like to call it. And, for argument’s sake, even if it was a “sex vaccine,” so what?! Women do not deserve to be punished with CANCER for having sex. End of story.

The bottom line is this debate needs to be about accurate medical information and protecting women’s health, not about punishing or imposing an ideological agenda on sexually active women and girls. It will be interesting to see how this vaccine, not to mention birth control and abortion, will emerge in debates and presidential campaigns in the coming months.

What do you think about the HPV vaccine? Have you been vaccinated? Would you vaccinate your daughter(s)?



  1. Thank you for writing this article. I too was infuriated after watching the Republican debate because of the candidates’ attacks on this vaccine. I was vaccinated my senior year of high school, as were my two younger sisters (then an 8th grader and freshman). Fast forward to (hopefully years from now!) when I have daughters, and they will without a doubt be vaccinated. I think it’s careless for any woman to not be vaccinated. Just because I received this vaccine does not mean that I am a slut. This is me taking care of my body.

  2. I really am impressed in a scary way with Bachman’s chitzpah, since as you point out, she is absolutely for government getting into the vaginas of women young and old. But I suppose blatant hypocrisy is easy to gloss over when emotions trump reason. I’m all for the HPV vaccine, too. How many others do children have to get before they’re allowed to go to school? (And how many times do the autism links have to be disproved?) I wonder if the key to getting the right wing to warm up to birth control for everyone is to launch a stealth campaign to get bigwig Republican donors to invest in the companies making them. Bachmann’s best point of attack was Rick Perry’s staffer’s interest in the Gardisil co.

  3. I’ve been vaccinated, and would absolutely vaccinate my daughter.

  4. Jodi Speakman says:

    My daughter is one of the young girls who has been seriously ill for over 3 1/2 years. Immediately after her second vaccination, she experienced severe diarrhea, vomiting and was nauseous for about eight weeks. My daughter has undergone CT scans, MRI’s, MRA’s, EEG’s, blood work and was hospitalized at an epilepsy center in the video EEG monitoring unit for two separate weeks in May 2008 and September 2008. A follow-up MRI was performed and a spinal tap was attempted, but was unsuccessful. She later underwent a lumbar puncture with fluoroscopy.

    My daughter has been diagnosed my daughter with toxic encephalopathy secondary to the Gardasil vaccine. She currently experiences the following symptoms: non-epileptic seizures, migraines, fainting, various tremors, twitches and numbness, intermittent leg paralysis and facial paralysis, tingling, staring or blank episodes, eye pain, joint pain, neck pain, back pain, memory loss, confusion, brain fog, regression, mood swings, hair loss and chronic fatigue. She continues to have bouts of nausea and diarrhea. She has not been in school since April 2008. My daughter can never be left home alone. She can’t go to school, go out with her friends or work or has little “normalcy” in her life. She has very few good days and always says she doesn’t feel good.
    My daughter’s treating neurologist informed me that he does believe that my daughter’s symptoms were brought on by the vaccine, just not in a way that he could test or prove.

    By the way, I am not anti-vaccine. If I were, my daughter would not have been vaccinated with Gardasil. Perhaps Merck should spent their dollars trying to find help for the many thousands of girls who are suffering from adverse reactions. After all, there is no help for the girls who passed away as a result of Gardasil.

    Jodi Speakman

    • Jodi, thank you for your comment. I’m so sorry to hear about what happened to your daughter. I really hope that the neurologist is able to help her heal.

      Your point about Merck is totally on the money – and it’s something that Rick Perry and others who want to make the vaccine mandatory need to consider.

  5. So I do NOT like or support Bachman and her statements were fear inciting and dangerous, not to mention stupid. But I also think that making a blanket statement that all young women should get the HPV vaccine is an overstatement and can be dangerous too. Vaccines do have adverse effects, they are not 100% guaranteed to work, however research on that end is scant, or at least difficult to find, and I think it is because vaccines producers don’t want you to know that there could be adverse side effects, they just want to see as many vaccines as possible. Jodi’s daughter (from the comment above) is an example of a person who had an awful reaction to the vaccine–and I think it should be told to everyone who gets any vaccine that there could be possible adverse side effects.

    There were about 21,000 new cases last year in the US of the cancers Maureen listed in the article (according the the American Caner Institute) and there are 312,270,472 people in the US as of the US Census Bureau. Now we could half that for women and then subtract more to get only young women, but the cancer statistic includes all cases reported last year, female, male (because I included penis cancer) and all ages. How many people had a reaction to vaccines last year? I don’t know because I couldn’t find any statistics but if the percentage of cervical cancer is so small (12,710 new cases and 4,290 deaths) I’m guessing the cases of horrible reactions to the HPV vaccine could be pretty close in percentage.

    I’m not saying don’t vaccinate, I’m not saying don’t get the HPV vaccine, but I think we should be critical thinkers, even when it comes to medicine. And that we should have all the facts. All vaccines are not perfect, then don’t work 100% of the time and they CAN have really bad adverse effects. That should be something all people are told when they elect to have vaccines. And to just say that its a no-brainer is dangerous thinking.

    It is also interesting to that Maureen cited cancer of the penis as a possible result from HPV, but are young men encourage to get the vaccine?

  6. Elizabeth (Aust) says:

    I think a lot of the fuss about HPV/cervical cancer/saving lives is political spin and made by self-interested groups, the fact is you’d save more lives if you concentrated on HPV-related head and neck cancer first, these cancers take more lives than rare cervical cancer. How much do we hear about those cancers? Mouth cancer occurs in similar numbers to cervical cancer – not much hysteria about that and we’re not spending millions “fighting it”…

    I would NEVER accept any information about cervical screening or the HPV vaccine from the authorities – these programs are loaded with vested and political interests. The only way you’ll get complete and balanced information is to do your own research. I always look to the Nordic Cochrane Institute for unbiased information. (an international, independent research group)

    I did my own research almost 30 years ago and as a low risk woman it was easy decision to decline cervical screening – my risk from the cancer was near zero, the lifetime risk of a false positive and unnecessary biopsy or “treatment” – 77%…(it’s higher in the States)
    The fact is…this cancer was always rare and in natural decline before testing even started and I believe those factors are still having an impact on the incidence rate – things like more hysterectomies, better condoms and hygiene, fewer women smoking and less sexually transmitted disease. Not many women benefit from pap testing – probably fewer than 0.45%…

    The entire emphasis has been on the unreliable pap test which causes so much worry and harm to the healthy population of women – the more than 99% who can’t benefit from pap testing and would never be bothered by this cancer. The rights and health of a few should never override the health and rights of the vast majority of women. It’s a shame there is not more attention paid to prevention of HPV in the first place – the cancer is rare, so simply using condoms has a big impact. One US study on college students starting their sexual lives showed those who always insisted on condoms had 70% less HPV….

    We could have screened for this cancer and lessened the negative impact on healthy women. Countries like Finland and the Netherlands have framed programs that provide some protection for healthy women, while Australia and the States have “slash and burn” programs that chase these rare cancers with no regard for the harm and distress they cause to healthy women.

    The Netherlands are proposing to implement high risk HPV testing as the primary test (including self-test kits) – it will be offered at age 30 (screening doesn’t help those under 30 – you could screen everyone and would have no impact on the tiny death rate, but you’d cause harm through false positives and potentially harmful over-treatment – young women produce the most false positives) – those negative for hrHPV will then be offered another four tests – at age 35, 40, 50 and 60. Those positive for hrHPV will be offered a pap test every 5 years – this way the program focuses on those “at risk” and provides some protection for the masses…only 5% of women are HPV positive at age 40. It also seems clear that women who test negative at age 30 and are no longer sexually active or in a monogamous relationship, could choose to stop testing and revisit the subject if their risk profile changes in the future.

    There are much better ways of dealing with this small risk (near zero for low risk women)…
    IMO these programs harm and worry far more than they could possibly help – perspective has been lost and far more likely risks to our health are shoved aside and ignored.
    I think these programs are now largely about politics, profits and keeping gender groups and the powerful cancer charities happy and content…

    The thing to remember: HPV is common (especially in young women) – cervical cancer is rare.
    Your comment: “one can contract HPV without having sex” – the high grade strains that are linked to cervical cancer are sexually transmitted in almost every case and that’s why women not yet sexually active are excluded from cervical screening programs for their own protection. It’s only the States that include these women from age 21, but that’s more about paternalism – arrogantly “assuming” women are all sexually active by that age. Doctors should not be “assuming” anything – they should give us the information to make the best decision for our risk profile – whether to accept elective cancer screening.
    There are very rare cases of someone contracting a high grade strain of HPV from their infected mother during childbirth, but if we shape health policy in this way, we just end up harming lots, to possibly help very few…
    My advice to anyone considering the HPV vaccine or screening – do your own reading, ask lots of questions, find a doctor who treats you respectfully and don’t let anyone push you into anything….it’s your decision.

  7. Elizabeth (Aust) says:

    The self-test hrHPV primary test gets a big tick and is being used in the Netherlands – here is an article on its reliability – it is by far the best way to help the small number of women at risk from this rare cancer, while minimizing the huge negative impact of this testing on the “not at risk” population – by age 40 only 5% are HPV positive, so you can see there are a LOT of pap tests being done on women not even at risk and many end up having unnecessary biopsies and over-treatment after false positive pap tests and some are left with damage to the cervix and continuing issues…scar tissue on the cervix that can interfere with menstruation and lead to endometriosis and may need a procedure/surgery, infertility, c-sections, cervical incompetence – premature babies etc…
    Most of this damage could be avoided with hrHPV triage testing IN responsible hands – offered just 5 times at ages 30, 35, 40, 50 and 60 and only those positive should be offered 5 yearly pap testing. (there is also a self sample pap test) Those negative and no longer sexually active or in a monogamous relationship might choose to stop testing and revisit the subject if their risk profile changes in the future.
    With hrHPV triage primary testing, FAR fewer women will have pap testing and others will have infrequent hrHPV testing (and might choose to self-test) and some might choose to forget testing.
    All women should demand access to hrHPV primary testing and the self-testing kits.

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