There is a myth pushed by the anti-vaccine religion that the HPV vaccine leads to sexual promiscuity. I’ve debunked this fable previously, using peer-reviewed research, but you know the anti-vaccine zombie tropes – they never really die, and they always come back to life.
Let’s look at a couple of new studies that, once again, debunk the myth that sexual promiscuity is linked to the HPV vaccine. There is no link. Period. Full stop.
All about HPV vaccines
Genital and oral human papillomavirus (HPV) infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections (STI) in the USA. HPV is generally transmitted from personal contact during vaginal, anal or oral sex.
It’s important to note that there are more than 150 strains or subtypes of HPV that can infect humans – however, only 40 of these strains are linked to one or more different cancers. Of those 40 strains, most are fairly rare.
Although the early symptoms of HPV infections aren’t serious and many HPV infections resolve themselves without long-term harm, HPV infections are causally 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:
In addition, there is some evidence that HPV infections are causally linked to skin and prostate cancers. The link to skin cancer is still preliminary, but there is much stronger evidence that HPV is linked to many prostate cancers.
HPV is believed to cause nearly 5% of all new cancers across the world, making it almost as dangerous as tobacco in that respect. According to the CDC, roughly 79 million Americans are infected with HPV – approximately 14 million Americans contract a new HPV every year. Most individuals don’t even know they have the infection until the onset of cancer. The CDC also states that over 43,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed in the USA every year. It may be several times that amount worldwide.
There were two HPV vaccines on the world market before 2014. GSK, also known as GlaxoSmithKline, produced Cervarix, a bivalent (protects against two HPV strains) vaccine. It has been withdrawn from the US market (although available in many other markets), because of the competition from the quadrivalent (immunizes against four different HPV strains) and 9-valent (against nine HPV strains) Gardasil vaccines.
Merck manufactures Gardasil, probably the most popular HPV vaccine in the world. The first version of the vaccine, quadrivalent Gardasil, targets the two HPV genotypes known to cause about 70% of cervical cancer and two other HPV genotypes that cause genital warts. In Europe and other markets, Gardasil is known as Silgard.
The newer Gardasil 9, approved by the FDA in 2014, is a 9-valent vaccine, protecting against HPV Types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. It targets the four HPV strains found in the quadrivalent version, along with five additional ones that are linked to cervical and other HPV-related cancers. Both versions of Gardasil are prophylactic, meant to be given to females or males before they become exposed to possible HPV infection through intimate contact.
Gardasil is one of the easiest and best ways to prevent a few dangerous and, to abuse the definition slightly, common cancers that afflict men and women. Without a doubt, the HPV vaccine prevents cancer.
Currently, in the United States, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends that preteen girls and boys aged 11 or 12 are vaccinated against HPV. The immunization is also recommended for teenage girls and young women up to the age of 26 who did not receive it when they were younger, and teenage boys and young men up to the age of 21.
Let me sum this all up so that if you come away from this section with nothing else, you get this summary. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease. HPV causes 43,000 cancers a year in the USA alone. The HPV vaccine prevents becoming infected by HPV, which means you are protected from these cancers.
HPV vaccine and sexual promiscuity – the study
The study by Dr. Erin E Cook, a graduate student completing her doctoral dissertation in the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, was published in Pediatrics in August 2018. Dr. Cook compared states that had passed legislation to promote the HPV vaccine versus states that had not. These policies to promote HPV vaccines included everything from in-school programs that increased awareness of HPV and the vaccine to incentives for health insurance companies to cover the vaccine’s costs.
She then utilized the results of a multi-year survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ascertain whether teenagers living in areas with pro-HPV vaccine policies had more sex. The results of this study – they didn’t.
A total of over 715 thousand particpants were reported to having sexual intercourse over the past three months, while over 217 thousand of them reported recent condom use. They found no statistically significant links between areas with HPV vaccine legislation and adolescent sexual behaviors.
The authors concluded that:
HPV legislation does not appear to have a detrimental effect on adolescent sexual behaviors. This study, taken with the other studies in which researchers look at the impact of HPV vaccines on adolescent sexual behavior and the low vaccination rates in the United States, can be used to provide support for the reintroduction and strengthening of legislation regarding the HPV vaccine. Concern that legislation will increase risky adolescent sexual behaviors should not be used when deciding to pass legislation regarding HPV vaccination.
In addition, the authors also found that:
Enacting legislation regarding human papillomavirus was not associated with changes in recent sexual intercourse or condom use during last sexual intercourse in United States adolescents.
Summary of the HPV vaccine and sexual promiscuity
This is another powerful study that refutes any link between the HPV vaccine and sexual promiscuity in adolescent populations. In fact, regulations and legislation that support the HPV vaccine seem to reduce risky sexual behavior among adolescents.
So have we eliminated the claim that the HPV vaccine leads to sexual promiscuity?
- Bednarczyk RA, Davis R, Ault K, Orenstein W, Omer SB. Sexual activity-related outcomes after human papillomavirus vaccination of 11- to 12-year-olds. Pediatrics. 2012 Nov;130(5):798-805. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-1516. Epub 2012 Oct 15. PubMed PMID: 23071201.
- Cook EE, Venkataramani AS, Kim JJ, Tamimi RM, Holmes MD. Legislation to Increase Uptake of HPV Vaccination and Adolescent Sexual Behaviors. Pediatrics. 2018 Sep;142(3). pii: e20180458. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-0458. Epub 2018 Aug 13. PubMed PMID: 30104422.
- Kann L, McManus T, Harris WA, Shanklin SL, Flint KH, Queen B, Lowry R, Chyen D, Whittle L, Thornton J, Lim C, Bradford D, Yamakawa Y, Leon M, Brener N, Ethier KA. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2017. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2018 Jun 15;67(8):1-114. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.ss6708a1. PubMed PMID: 29902162; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6002027.
- Smith LM, Kaufman JS, Strumpf EC, Lévesque LE. Effect of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination on clinical indicators of sexual behaviour among adolescent girls: the Ontario Grade 8 HPV Vaccine Cohort Study. CMAJ. 2014 Dec 8. pii: cmaj.140900. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 25487660.