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The HPV Vaccine: Separating Myth From Fact

The HPV Vaccine: Separating Myth From Fact

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

I hope this question isn’t too personal; feel free to ignore if it is. But as a fellow mom of rapidly-getting-older boys, I was wondering if you had any thoughts or opinions on giving them the Gardasil HPV vaccine. I’m pretty pro-vaccine (uh, no polio for us, thanks!) but for some reason some of my friends are completely refusing this one for their daughters AND sons, and telling me all sorts of awful things that will happen if I vaccinate my son (who is 11) and that it’s all just a big money-making conspiracy by the pharma companies. His pediatrician (who has known him all his life and I trust) is recommending it, it seems most of the reputable sites on The Google claim it’s safe…but then there are a LOT of other sites that, okay, are just completely scaring the crap out of me. 

Again, sorry if this is too personal of a question to ask, but will you give/not give your boys the HPV vaccine?

To poke or not to poke

You know, part of me didn’t want to tackle this question, just because I could already picture the blowback/hissyfit/major drama that would probably take over the comment section.

And then there’s a bigger part of me that is just genuinely sad that in 2015, in America, the topic of vaccines is still crazy controversial. Or even up for debate at all. What in the ever-loving WORLD, people! You’ve brought back whooping cough! And measles! And people are DYING!

(Ten babies died of whooping cough in California in 2010. And now we’ve had our first confirmed measles death in over a decade.)

(In case it’s not clear yet: Enough is enough. TEAM VACCINES.)

Your question is kind of timely, given the new vaccination law in California, where the herd immunity is genuinely in danger due to the high number of parents opting out of vaccines. Typically I’m always opposed to the government getting involved in any way in people’s medical decisions, but once those decisions start endangering the public health in general (and OTHER people’s children — infants who are too young to be vaccinated, seriously ill kids, or pretty much anybody who can’t get vaccinated or is pregnant or hasn’t kept up on their boosters because who cares, nobody gets the measles anymore OH NO WAIT WHAT), Imma have to not care very much. I send my kids to schools where vaccinations are required and so I vaccinate them and I don’t lie that I have some religious conviction that I don’t actually have because I read something scary on the Internet.

Also, before anybody starts: I have a child with mild autism. He is fully vaccinated, and no, those vaccines did not cause his autism, because his autism is genetic and he was Born That Way. VACCINES DO NOT CAUSE AUTISM FOR THE FOUR HOJILLIONTH TIME. Andrew Wakefield’s study has been utterly, thoroughly debunked and I have SO MUCH RAGE at him, for causing a full-on public health crisis where people are so terrified of having a child “like mine” that they’ll put children at risk of DYING of TERRIBLE DISEASES.


But back to your question, and specifically the (non-required but highly recommended) vaccine for the human papillomavirus, aka HPV. This vaccine got a terrible start, PR wise, as people collectively freaked out over something 1) new, and 2) related to something you get from The Sex.

I can genuinely understand the initial concerns over a new vaccine and not being 100% sure whether it worked or if we knew enough about potential long-term effects. That would’ve given me pause as well, if I’d been young enough to receive the vaccine myself when it was first  introduced. (I’m not even going to speak to the concerns related to OMG we’re giving our virgins whore shots thing, because whatever.) So let’s look where we are NOW:

From the Center for Disease Control, who have a lot of diseases to control, and who I don’t think have any vested interest in having previously-controlled diseases come back: “Approximately 67 million doses of HPV vaccine have been distributed in the U.S. since 2006, and no serious safety concerns have been linked to HPV vaccination. Common, mild side effects reported include pain in the arm where the shot was given, fever, dizziness, and nausea.”

From The New York Times, emphasis mine: “The American government’s goal of vaccinating young girls against the human papillomavirus has been disappointing, with less than a third of teenagers having completed a full course of HPV vaccine. But now the United States can look to Australia, which six years into a successful nationwide HPV vaccination campaign has experienced a sharp decline in the number of new cases of genital warts among young men and women. The country, one of the first to establish a nationally financed HPV vaccination program for girls and young women, has also seen a decrease in the number of cases of cervical abnormalities, a precursor to cervical cancer. Australia’s program, which started in 2007, offers free HPV vaccination to girls who are 12 and 13 years old, and catch­up programs for girls and women under 26. The vaccine protects against genital warts as well as cancers of the cervix, head and neck.”

The Times got its statistics from an actual medical study published in an actual medical journal.

“The researchers found that diagnoses of genital warts among young women ages 12 to 26 plummeted 59 percent in the two years after the program began. For men in the same age group, genital warts cases dropped 39 percent. During the same period, there was also a striking decline in the rate of highgrade cervical abnormalities in teenage girls, a sign that a decline in cervical cancer cases may be on the horizon.”

(Of course, just because you get your daughters vaccinated, it’s important to stress to them that Gardasil is NOT a get-out-of-future-PAP-smears-free card, and regular GYN visits are still vitally important.)

It’s interesting to note that despite those happy numbers, the vaccine fear-mongering machine is alive and well in Australia as well: Belle Gibson, the Australian “wellness blogger” who claimed she cured her brain cancer with green smoothies and lots of kale and pretty Instagram photos, also blamed her cancer on the government-paid-and-recommended HPV vaccine. It was a nice narrative that played to a lot of her fellow anti-vaxxer’s confirmation bias. Vaccines aren’t “natural,” and the government and Big Pharma are in cahoots to poison us all because $$$$$.

Of course, none of it was true. I don’t know if Ms. Gibson is just a straight-up lying scammer or a deeply troubled woman suffering from Munchausen-by-Internet or some other delusional disorder, but I know that Gardasil does not cause brain cancer. (And that a pretty, wholesome, Pinterest-friendly diet alone does not cure cancer).

Look, there are things one may dislike about Big Pharma. But vaccines work. Vaccines are good. We all spend so much time and money worrying about our health and the health of our loved ones. We read books and articles and follow “wellness bloggers” hoping to find a solid path to health and a long life via diet and vitamins and coffee enemas. We run races and wear ribbons and wristbands to raise money and awareness for diseases and different cancers in hopes of science finding a cure…or a vaccine.

And then we get a vaccine for a cancer that is the third most common cancer for women worldwide, and kills over 300,000 women a year (not to mention the  related cancers that men can get!) and we’re all collectively like, eh, I dunno. I think I’ll pass.

I would like to see cervical cancer go the way of polio, honestly. I would like it if nobody — boys, girls, men, women — had to suffer from any of the cancers and other health complications related to dumb stupid old HPV. I personally think that would be super.

So to answer your question: Yes. I am going to get my boys vaccinated against HPV once they reach the recommended age. Then I’ll probably buy them an ice cream cone because shots suck.

(This is not a sponsored post, by the way. I received no additional money beyond my usual column compensation from Alpha Mom, and I swear we are 100% not in cahoots with Big Pharma in order to trick our beloved readers into poisoning themselves with cancer serum because that would be a really dumb long-term business plan you guys.)

Published July 8, 2015. Last updated July 8, 2015.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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