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If you’ve ever wondered whether the introduction of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was making any impact in society, we now have further evidence. Just last month the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that the incidence of HPV infections in girls aged 14 to 19 decreased from 7.2 percent in 2006 to 3.6 percent in 2010. It was a greater drop than expected given that only a third of those in this age group received the full course of vaccines, which is three separate shots.

Why is this big news?

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus and the most common cause of cervical cancer. It can cause genital warts and penile cancer and is also a factor in some oropharyngeal cancers affecting the throat. So this “anticancer vaccine” (as termed by Dr. Thomas Friedman of the CDC) is now proving to be effective on a larger scale, and vaccination efforts appear to be a worthwhile public-health measure to try to reduce the rates of HPV-related cancers.

When the HPV vaccine first came onto the market, it was met with skepticism and controversy. Because the best time to vaccinate is before any exposure to the virus through sexual activity, it is recommended that girls age 11 should be vaccinated. (This immunization is also considered safe for girls as young as 9).

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There were concerns that vaccination would encourage promiscuity, a fear that has not been substantiated by data to date. To further complicate matters, in 2011, Rep.
Michele Bachmann infamously and misleadingly stated that the HPV vaccine was potentially dangerous, implying that it was the cause of one child’s “mental retardation.” There is no link between the HPV vaccine and developmental delay.

The most common side effects of the HPV vaccine is fainting, pain and swelling at injection site, and headache, all of which can occur with any immunization.

The second shot of the three shots is given one to two months after the first and the third is given six months after the first. Many girls and women miss their third shot because they forget, they are not notified or they move or go away to school. Missed injections can generally still be made up. Although the efficacy may be lower, there may be enough of a benefit to complete the series.

Some girls or women think that they won’t benefit from the HPV vaccine if they’ve been diagnosed with HPV infection in the past. Because one vaccine covers four strains of HPV, it can still protect against the three other strains. (Note that another manufacturer makes an HPV vaccine that covers only two strains). The HPV vaccine is also approved for boys and men from age 13 to 21.

As a physician, and as a woman, it is exciting for me to hear more data suggesting that something as simple as an immunization can prevent cervical cancer, the second most common cancer in women worldwide. If you’ve been concerned or on the fence about HPV vaccination, I hope this new information will help guide any of your future decisions. Talk to your own doctor or your child’s pediatrician, who can help you make a decision that’s best for you or your family.

Linda Pourmassina, MD, is an Internal Medicine physician who practices at The Polyclinic in Seattle. She authors a blog at and can also be found on Facebook and on Twitter (@LindaP_MD).

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