Is the HPV vaccine dangerous?

Did you watch the presidential debate on Monday? Michele Bachmann, in an attack on her opponent Rick Perry, criticized the Texas governor for mandating that young girls in his state get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

In her statement Bachmann said she objected to forcing people to receive the vaccine, in part because she feels it’s a “potentially very dangerous drug.”

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Her comments have raised eyebrows on both sides of the political fence, and raised questions in the minds of parents. To address these concerns Thriving spoke with Lydia Shrier, MD, MPH, of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Division of Adolescent Medicine to get the facts on HPV and its vaccination.

What is HPV?

HPV stands for Human papillomavirus. There are more than 100 types of HPV, of which more than 30 are transmitted sexually—those are the ones most people are referencing when talking about HPV—and they can be separated into two types: low risk and high risk. Both can result in some form of genital disease, with the low risk-types typically leading to genital warts and minor abnormalities in the cells of the cervix. The high-risk types can lead to several forms of genital cancer, including cervical cancer.


Lyida Shrier, MD, MPH

How effective is the HPV vaccination and how does it work?

The HPV vaccine is highly effective in protecting against the acquisition of certain types of HPV, namely the ones that are most likely to cause genital warts and cervical, vaginal or vulvar cancer. It’s given in a series of three shots over a six month time period. (Read an article Dr. Shrier wrote about the HPV vaccine.)

It’s made of virus-like particles that look to the body like HPV, which encourages the body to make antibodies against it. This is helpful for if and when a person is exposed to HPV, because their body will already have antibodies needed to fight and kill the virus.

When you think about it, having a preventive vaccine for these types of cancers is pretty remarkable. The way we prevent most cancers is by not smoking or monitoring our behavior in some way. But with the HPV vaccine we can actually help prevent people from developing a cancer they may have otherwise been susceptible to.

Michelle Bachmann referred to the vaccination as a “potentially dangerous drug.” Is this a common misconception about this vaccine? And are there safety concerns about the vaccine? As of June 2011, approximately 35 million doses of the HPV vaccine Gardasil had been given in the United States. There have been relatively few reports of potentially adverse events following administration of the vaccine, and the vast majority of these few reports have been of a non-serious nature (e.g., fainting, pain, headache, nausea, etc.). Of the serious events that followed receipt of the vaccine, there has been no evidence that they were related to HPV vaccination. (Read a recent Q&A about the HPV vaccine.)

Most parents and patients I’ve seen have not expressed concern about the HPV vaccine being potentially dangerous. Most understand that many, many individuals have received the vaccine without problems. Further, most people understand that even if a problem arises after the vaccine is given, that doesn’t mean that the vaccine caused the problem.

For more on the safety of Gardasil visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

The recommended age for the HPV vaccine is 11 to 12 years. Considering that the HPV vaccine is intended to prevent acquisition of sexually transmitted viruses, why start so young?

In order for the vaccine to be most effective, the person being immunized can’t have come in contact with any of the viruses the vaccine protects against. By giving it to younger girls it’s hoped that most of them will not yet have been exposed to the types of HPV against which the vaccine provides protection, thereby strengthening the vaccine’s effectiveness.

What are the safety concerns of giving your child the HPV vaccine?

Overall, the HPV vaccine is very safe. The most common side effects are pain, swelling and redness at the injection site, and, rarely, people have had fever, nausea or vomiting afterwards. Some girls feel dizzy after receiving the vaccine, so we ask everyone to sit for 15 minutes after receiving the shot.

If parents are interested in having their daughter receive a HPV vaccine, who should they talk to? Will they have to pay for it?

Talk to your primary care provider about getting the HPV vaccine for your daughter. All practices should have the vaccine available. The HPV vaccine is covered by insurance companies and the Vaccines for Children program.

HPV vaccine and boys: The CDC states that boys ages 11 and 12 should be routinely vaccinated for HPV.

3 thoughts on “Is the HPV vaccine dangerous?

    1. Because the vaccine was first found to be most effective in prevention of cervix and vaginial cancer, it was originally more geared towards young women. However, the HPV vaccine was just recently approved for use in males. Dr. Shrier’s advice for parents should apply to parents of children of both sexes.

  1. Parents should be given the freedom to make informed, educated decisions regarding their childrens’ vaccine schedules and not have to be subjected to mandates.  “One size does not fit all!”  If there was no potential for vaccines to produce potentially harmful side effects, then there would be no Vaccines Adverse Effect REporting System (VAERS) set in place by our government.

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