As I’ve written before, there are precious few ways to prevent cancer. But one of the best cancer prevention strategies is the HPV vaccine, which can prevent numerous cancers such as cervical, oral, penile and anal, all serious, and all dangerous. Maybe we should just rename Gardasil to “HPV cancer vaccine,” which could make everyone sit up and notice.
The HPV vaccination rate remains depressingly low in the USA. According to recent research, 39.7% of adolescent girls aged 13-17 received all three doses of the vaccine in 2014 up from 37.6% in 2013. HPV vaccination rates among teen boys are much lower than for girls, 21.6% in 2014 up from 13.4% in 2013.
There are probably a lot of reasons for the low HPV cancer vaccine uptake rate, so I thought I’d go through the most “popular” ones, debunking them one by one.
Hopefully, the reader can use this article as a checklist of the tropes and myths of the anti-Gardasil crowd with quick answers to them. Maybe you’ll convince one person to get their son or daughter vaccinated against HPV related cancers.
All about HPV
I know I’ve written these paragraphs at least 50 times, but for the first time researcher, hopefully this helps. If you’ve read it before, skip this section. You can take a swig of coffee while scrolling down.
Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the USA. There are more than 150 strains or subtypes of HPV sub-types that can infect humans. About 40 of these strains are linked to a variety of cancers.
Additionally, some HPV types can also infect the mouth and throat. HPV is generally transmitted from personal contact during vaginal, anal or oral sex.
Gardasil-9, the current version of the HPV cancer vaccine, protects teens and young adults from 9 subtypes of cancer-causing HPV, which leads to lower risks of more types of cancer.
Although the early symptoms of HPV infections aren’t serious, those infections are closely linked to many types of cancers in men and women. According to current medical research, here are some of the cancers that are linked to HPV:
These are all dangerous and disfiguring cancers that can be mostly prevented by the HPV cancer vaccine. If you’re a male, and you think that these are mostly female cancers, penile cancer can lead to amputation of your penis. Just think about that guys.
HPV is believed to cause nearly 5% of all new cancers across the world, making it almost as dangerous as tobacco with respect to cancer. According to the CDC, roughly 79 million Americans are infected with HPV–approximately 14 million Americans contract HPV every year. Most individuals don’t even know they have the infection until the onset of cancer. About 27,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed in the USA every year.
Let’s look at some of the key myths, and give you tools to debunk them.
The HPV cancer vaccine is dangerous
- The HPV cancer vaccine causes Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). No, and no again.
- The vaccine causes blood clots. No.
- The HPV vaccine causes an increase in the risk of multiple sclerosis or some other acquired central nervous system demyelinating syndrome. No.
- The HPV vaccine causes primary ovarian insufficiency. Absolutely no.
- Gardasil causes behavioral problems. No, and the article that claims this was retracted.
- Digging for data in the in VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) shows that Gardasil is related to numerous deaths. No, unless you enjoy dumpster diving.
- The American College of Pediatricians claims that Gardasil harms girls. Yes (kind of), but they are a right wing medical association which ignores evidence.
- Large studies show that the HPV vaccine is dangerous. No, no, no, and no once more for good measure. There are literally several million patients enrolled in all of these studies, and using the best possible research methods, the researchers have found nothing supporting any serious adverse effect from Gardasil.
The HPV cancer vaccine causes promiscuity
One of the most lame, nonsensical and silly tropes about Gardasil. There is absolutely no evidence that Gardasil increases teenage promiscuity, and, in fact, there is minor evidence that teens who have been vaccinated tend to be less promiscuous. So there’s that.
Here is a link to help you debunk this pernicious myth.
Gardasil does not prevent HPV infections
Another ridiculous and easily debunked myth:
- Gardasil has been shown to retain effectiveness at least 8 years post-vaccination.
- Since the vaccine was introduced in the USA in 2006, the prevalence of the HPV types prevented by the vaccine decreased by 56% among female teenagers, 14-19 years old.
- HPV infection rate in the UK dropped significantly after release of the HPV vaccine.
- Free HPV vaccine in Australia cause a greater than 60% drop in HPV infection rates.
- Evidence has shown that the HPV infection rate is dropping in US teens as a result of the HPV vaccine.
That’s got to be convincing epidemiological research to anyone with an open mind.
Gardasil does not prevent cancer
Another crazy myth that keeps coming back as a zombie trope, you know, those myths that we skeptics keep crushing, yet they arise again in a few months.
Setting aside the fact that if a cancer is linked to HPV, and if you prevent said HPV infection, one can logically conclude that that cancer will not start. Look, I’m not an expert on everything in medicine, but I’m going to have to say that if you have working neurons, the logic is simple and fairly robust.
However, there is affirmative research that shows that the HPV cancer vaccine does indeed reduce the risk of cancer:
- Gardasil has shown to reduce the risk of cervical neoplasms by nearly 40% in large population of Danish women.
- Even one dose of the HPV vaccine is sufficient to prevent cancer.
- Gardasil saves money by reducing the rate of oropharyngeal cancer in men.
- The HPV cancer vaccine prevents pre-cancerous lesions (cervical dysplasia) in girls 3-4 years after vaccination.
- And more evidence that Gardasil prevents cancer in men.
- The HPV vaccine prevents cancer in men and saves lives. Men and women need to be vaccinated.
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Lead Gardasil researcher hates the vaccine
This is definitely one of the most powerful zombie myths about the HPV cancer vaccine on the internet. I swear I see a new version of this trope at least once a week.
And my articles about Diane Harper, the so-called “lead Gardasil researcher” are in the top 5 most read articles on this blog, with hundreds of thousands of hits each. I could write one Diane Harper article per week, and probably have more clicks than Amazon. Maybe not.
Dr. Diane Harper may actually hate Gardasil, but her opinions about HPV vaccines are contradictory and perplexing. To be honest, other than the fact that she’s made incredibly confusing comments about Gardasil, she’d be a source I’d use in support of the vaccine. One more thing, calling her a “lead researcher” is not accurate. Stop that.
Japan has banned the HPV cancer vaccine
- Japan’s Ministry of Health did withdraw its recommendation for the vaccine, but only because they used bad mathematics. They accepted supposed “adverse events” after Gardasil vaccine as causal, even though the adverse event rate after vaccination was actually LOWER than the general non-vaccinated population.
- A bunch of lawyers in Japan are trying to get money for their clients who were “injured” by the HPV vaccine. Of course, all evidence contradicts their claims.
- Once again, with all the energy I can provide – Japan did not ban Gardasil.
Gardasil is too expensive
This appears to be an ongoing issue with getting access to the vaccine. Although I know this is an issue in many parts of the world, it should not be a concern in the USA.
The HPV vaccine is fairly expensive. It costs around $400 for all three doses for each patient. However, this is not the whole story, since almost all individuals who need the vaccine will get it for free, or nearly so. There are so many programs that cover the cost of the Gardasil vaccine:
- Private insurance. Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) requires that all private insurance plans cover recommended preventative vaccines without cost-sharing. That includes Gardasil, although the newer Gardasil-9 will not be covered until January 2017. However, non-ACA private insurance may cover the newer version of Gardasil now.
- Vaccines for Children (VFC) Program. This is a federally-financed program pays for vaccines recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for children ages 18 and under who are either Medicaid-eligible, uninsured (or under-insured), or American Indian or Alaska Native. About 41% of all children’s vaccines are covered by this program.
- Immunization Grant Program (Section 317) – This CDC program awards grants to state, local and territorial public health departments to help cover vaccine costs. It also funds vaccinations for children who may not be covered by the VFC program.
- Medicaid. Since children under the age of 18 are covered by the VFC program, Medicaid covers the costs of ACIP recommended vaccines for women and men, ages 19 and 20, who are Medicaid eligible.
- Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) – This program is for children in families who may not qualify for Medicaid, because of higher income or resources. State CHIP programs that are separate from their Medicaid programs must cover ACIP-recommended vaccines for beneficiaries.
- Medicare. Although this program is mostly for the elderly, some young adults may be covered by Medicare if they’ve had a history of employment and are medically disabled. The program covers the full cost of all ACIP recommended vaccines at the age of the beneficiary.
- Assistance programs. Generally, other than Medicare, there is no public funding for any vaccine, including the HPV cancer preventing one, for uninsured adults who are older than 21. However, both Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, who manufacture and market HPV vaccines, have assistance programs to provide free vaccines to those in need.
If I can condense that into one statement – Gardasil is free to just about anyone in the USA.
The TL;DR version
The anti-vaccine crowd pushes numerous myths about the HPV cancer vaccine – none of them are supported by verifiable and unbiased evidence. None. Go look, the claims are easily dismissed, whatever they are.
And there’s robust evidence that Gardasil is safe and extremely effective in preventing numerous dangerous cancers.
And, if you’re an American, you can get it for free. And the same is true in Australia, as just one example.
Children need to be vaccinated against HPV. Do it now.
- Hinman AR, Orenstein WA, Rodewald L. Financing immunizations in the United States. Clin Infect Dis. 2004 May 15;38(10):1440-6. Epub 2004 Apr 26. PubMed PMID: 15156483.