When the initial HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine was released in 2006, it was met with a large public outcry in the United States from concerned parents, pediatricians, and politicians. Their claim was that vaccinating pre-teen girls and boys would encourage riskier teen sexual behavior.
The thought was that the vaccine would give young adults a false sense of protective security, and thus encourage them to engage in riskier sexual activities (sex without a condom, higher number of partners, etc.). Researchers immediately began to structure studies that would investigate the claim, and several studies began across the nation.
The research conclusions were that there was no evidence suggesting a link in riskier teen sexual behaviors among vaccinated teens. Despite the clinical evidence, the idea of mandatory HPV vaccinations has stirred up considerable controversy throughout the nation. The predominantly cited reasons for adult opposition were that it was either not necessary for their child or that their child was not sexually active. Physicians have also expressed concern about discussing sexual activity and behavior with pre-teen patients.
Abstinence is still the predominately taught form of sexual education in the United States. HPV is predominately spread through sexual contact, meaning that the vaccination of preteen girls means acknowledging the potential of sexual activity in pre-teens and young adolescents at a legislative level. For many parents, politicians, and physicians this creates uncomfortable emotional responses and has led to a push within the United States to defer the recommended age of vaccination until somewhere in the teenage years.
The concept of mandatory HPV vaccines is not revolutionary – Western European countries, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia have all since incorporated HPV vaccines into the required school vaccine schedules. The HPV vaccine is unique in that it is one of the few known drugs to directly reduce the risk of specific cancers.
In the early parts of the twentieth century, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer related death for American women. With the introduction of regular pap smears, and the understanding of the HPV virus, cervical cancer today affects approximately 12,000 women annually and results in approximately 4,000 deaths annually.
Globally, the issue of cervical cancer is much different. It is the second most common cause of cancer related death among women and disproportionately affects women during their child bearing years. Sadly, over 80% of all cervical cancer cases occur in the developing world and over 300,000 women die each year and thousands of others are affected financially, socially, and emotionally.
For one of the first times in human history we have an opportunity to reduce the risk of a specific type of cancer for our children and young ones. As both health care providers and global citizens it is our responsibility to work to minimize the barriers to access for these sorts of vaccinations.