Vaccines are back in the news thanks to another high-profile celebrity. Last time it was Jenny McCarthy who triggered controversy suggesting an unfounded link between vaccines and autism. This time Katie Couric has fanned the flames of alarmists for the HPV vaccine. Shame on you Katie, for choosing publicity and ratings over journalistic integrity.
I’ve written about the HPV and other vaccines many times, discussing its safety and other claims of anti-vaccine groups. Let me be clear about my position…Vaccines are important, they save many lives, and I am highly critical of the safety claims coming from these groups.
Here’s a fact: Human papilloma virus (HPV) has been directly linked with cervical cancer, which kills 4,000 women in the U.S. every year. But HPV causes more than that. It infects 6 million Americans—both men and women every year and leads to 25,000 new cancers of the cervix, throat, anus, vulva, vagina, and penis annually. And yes, it can also lead to genital warts, which is less serious than cancer but something most people would prefer not to endure if there was a way to prevent it! Most people think one can only acquire HPV infection via standard sexual intercourse. The truth is HPV spreads through various forms of intimacy. Thank you, Michael Douglas, for sharing his experience with oral sex that led to his throat cancer.
Here’s another fact: Over 40 million doses of HPV vaccine have been given, with the most common adverse side effect being a sore arm for a day or two. While nothing in life, including vaccines, is 100% safe or 100% effective, this vaccine now has a proven track record for over 7 years and millions of doses given. Will the vaccine provide lifelong immunity? We don’t know. But we do know that the immunity will last for several years and if waning immunity occurs, a booster dose could be given.
The doctor who appeared on Katie’s program made the argument that Pap smears, when done routinely, will detect early cervical cancer and make it treatable. Clearly, she spends too much time in her lab and not in Exam Room 1. Here are my responses:
1. Pap smears detect cancer once it is already there. I would rather prevent cancer than have to go through having it. That’s what vaccination is all about—disease prevention.
2. Having an abnormal Pap means enduring a painful cervical biopsy and removal of a portion of the cervix—which risks future reproductive problems.
3. Pap smears do not detect throat cancer, anal cancer or penile cancer.
Getting the Vaccine
For my patients, I follow the AAP guidelines which advise girls AND boys to receive the vaccine at 11-12 years of age. IMPORTANT: For the vaccine to be effective it must be given in a 3-dose series. A 2nd dose is given 1-2 months after the first dose and a 3rd dose is given 6 months after the first dose. Do I think my 11 year old patients are going to have any type of intimate contact with another human anytime soon? I sure hope not. But the whole point of vaccination is to protect BEFORE someone potentially is exposed.
Be an empowered parent. Ask questions. But seek the answers from reliable sources. Sorry Katie, I don’t trust your show as a source.
Ari Brown, MD