The Pros and Cons of HPV Vaccines
Human papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV is a contagious virus that affects the skin and/or mucous membranes. It can cause warts, including genital, and lead to cancer of the genitals, the most prevalent cervical cancer. Currently two vaccines are available to protect against specific strains of HPV, Gardasil and Cervarix. Gardasil is marketed by Merck & Co. and protects against HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18. Strains 16 and 18 cause the majority of all cervical cancers. Cervarix only offers protection against strains 16 and 18.
Both vaccines are recommended for girls as young as nine years old and up to 26 year old. The assumption is to vaccinate well before possible sexual activity. It is also assumed after the age of 26 most exposure would have occurred and a vaccine is too late. Much controversy involves the young age of the patients, side effects, and the long term efficacy of the vaccinations and the possibility of a false sense of security regarding sexual risk.
Both vaccines require a series of shots with reported side effects such as headaches, localized pain, and fainting. The pros of offering the shots to young girls are the likelihood they haven’t been already exposed to HPV. The cons are side effects, the possibility the vaccines will lose their effectiveness prior to adulthood, hence the requirement for later vaccinations throughout a lifetime. Another concern has been the targeting of only girls for the vaccination, more recently the vaccines have also been marketed to boys.
Side effects have also been a concern and include but are not limited to fatigue, localized pain, and swelling, and fainting (as mentioned previously). The pros are patients are under physician and parental supervision and most side effect are easily treated. The cons are both vaccines are still relatively new and some side effects may be undiscovered.
The long-term efficacy of the vaccines is still undetermined. Cervarix is assumed to remain effective seven years after the vaccincation while Gardasil is effective up to four years. The pros of vaccination, despite the length of efficacy, remains the same: protection while sexually active. However, it should be understood that future vaccinations may be required to maintain protection.
Opponents of the vaccines often claim it encourages sexual activity and promiscuity by offering a false sense of security regarding contracting disease. It must be made clear that responsible safe sex is still a necessary component of all sexual activity, especially with regards to knowing a partner’s history and using condoms or other contraceptive devices.
The decision to vaccinate children against HPV most often rests on the knowledge and expertise of physicians and parents, it is important to fully understand the pros and cons of both vaccines to make the best decision.