HPV: Vaccines, Politics, and Reality

by Rebekah on September 15, 2011

This week, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) made some waves by questioning Texas Governor, and fellow Presidential hopeful, Rick Perry about an executive order he issued mandating the HPV vaccine for girls in his state as part of the battery of vaccines required for public school eligibility. Bachmann suggested that Perry had been mandating an untested vaccine with questionable effects, her insinuation being that he did it at the behest of vaccine-maker Merck, who was a contributor to Perry. Bachmann later stated that a woman had come up to her before the debate and told her that her daughter had suffered mental retardation after receiving the HPV vaccine.

This recounting of things said is the end of the facts I can verify about this story.

There are a lot of myths, prejudices and fears being passed around in this discussion of Gardisil, the HPV vaccine in question. There are those who oppose vaccines in general. There are those who oppose Gardisil on the grounds that a vaccine preventing a sexually transmitted disease promotes promiscuity. There are those who fear government mandates on health matters. There are those who believe that vaccines cause irreparable harm. This discussion touches on all of those fears and suspicions and is likely to enhance them.

What this discussion is failing to do is foster a valuable and important reminder to women about their cervical health. And while I can’t verify the facts of Governor Perry’s relationship with Merck or Representative Bachmann’s conversation with the mother of a Gardisil recipient, I can share some important facts about Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), cervical cancer, and the HPV vaccine:

  • “Genital human papillomavirus (also called HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). There are more than 40 HPV types that can infect the genital areas of males and females. These HPV types can also infect the mouth and throat.” HPV is most frequently transmitted sexually. (CDC)
  • “Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. Another 6 million people become newly infected each year. HPV is so common that at least 50% of sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.” (CDC)
  • HPV in women can lead to cervical cancer. Of the nearly 12,000 American women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, most of them are related to HPV. (CDC)
  • HPV can also lead to cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and mouth and throat. (CDC)
  • Sexual abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV. Condom use can also help prevent HPV. Vaccines have also been shown to be very effective in preventing targeted strains of HPV. (CDC)
  • Cervical cancer will kill 4,200 women in America in 2011 . (American Cancer Society)
  • Cervical cancer CAN be prevented; Pap tests can detect pre-cancerous changes to the cervix and the abnormal cells can be removed before cancer is able to develop. (American Cancer Society)
  • The HPV vaccine has an excellent safety record per the CDC:

As of June 22, 2011, approximately 35 million doses of Gardasil® were distributed in the U.S. and VAERS received a total of 18,727 reports of adverse events following Gardasil® vaccination: 17,958 reports among females and 346 reports for males, of which 285 reports were received after the vaccine was licensed for males in October 2009. VAERS received 423 reports of unknown gender. Of the total number of VAERS reports following Gardasil®, 92% were considered to be non-serious, and 8% were considered serious*.

Since licensed in October 2009, uptake of Cervarix® vaccination in the U.S. has been low. As of June 2011, there have been 39 VAERS reports of adverse events following Cervarix® vaccination in the U.S. The majority of these reports (97%) were considered to be non-serious.

Cervical cancer is not a joke. HPV is not a joke. I tested positive for HPV in 2005 and showed cervical abnormalities in 2009. The abnormalities were serious enough to merit surgery to remove them so that they would not get the chance to develop into cancer. The kind of cancer that killed a high school classmate of mine a few months later. The kind of cancer that affected a young family member of mine and could recur and require more treatment, more surgery, a loss of fertility or a loss of her life.

Rep. Bachmann is choosing to make hay out of a sensitive issue. But she’s failing to use her moment in the spotlight to talk about the rest of the HPV story, the one that goes beyond grumbles about the HPV vaccine and sexual morality. The important part of this story is the opportunity to talk about how common HPV is and what kind of health problems it can lead to, to remind women to talk to their doctors about their options for maintaining their reproductive health and preventing major health issues, and to encourage women to get Pap smears and know their HPV status. And, please, take note that uninsured women may be eligible for free cervical cancer screenings under the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.

Please, women, don’t be distracted by the politicization of the HPV vaccine this week: instead use this as a reminder to call your gynecologist to schedule an appointment to get screened for cervical cancer and talk about ways you can reduce your risks. And call your friends and family to remind them to do the same.

Read more about HPV and cervical cancer from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Cancer Society.

If you are uninsured and wish to be screened for breast of cervical cancer, contact the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.

Rebekah is a DC-area mom with an over-developed sense of irreverence, socialist tendencies, ADD, and a blog.  She recently quit her non-profit sector job to pursue her dream of not working. She now spends her time answering her 3-year-old son’s questions and ranting at www.mom-in-a-million.com.

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Joanne Bamberger aka PunditMom September 16, 2011 at 11:48 am

Excellent post, Rebekah. I also can’t believe the misinformation that some are trying to pass off for political gain. I also had a cervical pre-cancer scare, mine when I was in law school and had to have minor surgery, as well, to remove those cells in hopes of keeping cancer away. The good news for me is that 20 years later, I am fine and haven’t had an issue with HPV or cervical cancer again. But so many women aren’t as lucky because they don’t have access or money for the Pap screenings that gave me the head’s up that something was wrong.

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Julie Marsh September 16, 2011 at 11:57 am

To think the stigma of HPV used to revolve around the unsavory image of warts. Thanks, Representative Bachmann (and Representative Santorum, who also jumped on the bandwagon during the debate), for the additional misleading and irrational fuel.

One of my closest friends from high school fought cervical cancer and won. Oral cancer is another real threat, and one that’s usually advanced too far before it’s detected. The idea that anyone would campaign *against* a measure that prevents cancer – it’s mind boggling.

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Lisa R. September 18, 2011 at 3:27 pm

I heard one comment that really wrapped up the whole HPV faux-controversy for me: “If this vaccine prevented breast cancer, would we even be having this discussion?”

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sue {laundry for six} September 20, 2011 at 9:04 am

The sad thing to me is that if vaccines aren’t mandated, insurance companies are loathe to cover them. Gardisil is an expensive vaccine if you have to pay for it out of pocket. So can we throw health care reform into the discussion?

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