Those few, albeit loud voices that seem to think every medical advancement in women's health will also serve as a dangerous aphrodisiac, if not a public health crisis, can lament a new study proving them wrong this week. According to research published in the journal of Pediatrics, the HPV vaccine does not lead to riskier sexual behavior in young women and teens.
While the Center for Disease Control recommends the vaccine for all girls between ages 11 and 26, only about half of American women actually receive the shot. The vaccine's relative unpopularity is partly due to fears that receiving a vaccine that only protects against one type of virus will give young people a false sense of security about their risk factors vis-a-vis other STIs and pregnancy.
In this sense, the HPV vaccine discussion resembles the decades-long debate over birth control: If a medication mitigates the consequences of unprotected sex, it must also encourage it. But it's not that simple.
Research released this week from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital suggests that young women who receive the HPV vaccine are no more likely to have unprotected sex than they were before they received it. In other words, getting vaccinated neither promotes nor discourages risky behavior, and a young person predisposed to safe sex is not likely to abandon healthy habits after receiving the vaccination.
While a study late last year indicated that the HPV vaccine was not correlated with increased incidence of other STIs or pregnancy among young women who received it, the Cincinnati study focused more on participants' attitudes about safe sex.
Researchers surveyed young women between 13 and 21 years old before they received the vaccine, and then again two and six months later. At each stage, they were asked about their rate of their sexual activity, whether they were using condoms, and if they thought the vaccine had diminished the necessity for condoms during sex.
Ultimately, those who were sexually active reported no decline in their condom use after receiving the vaccination, and that they understood the shots did not protect against other STIs or pregnancy. Though about 20 percent of women who had no sexual experience at the start of the study had become sexually active six months after (as one could probably expect from any population in this age group), these participants said their understanding of risks associated with sex were not influenced by the vaccine.
The study is heartening for those hoping to increase vaccination of young women in the interest of preventing cervical cancer. The vaccine protects against the two types of the HPV virus that cause 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. Dr. Jessica Kahn, who led the study, told Reuters:
There are so many contributing factors to whether an adolescent decides to have sex or not, and whether they decide to limit their number of partners or use condoms... Getting a vaccine probably just plays a very, very small role in their decisions.
The findings offer a welcomed reprieve from the near-constant task women have in defending their sexual health choices. While many women for whom the HPV vaccine is beneficial still defer to their parents when considering health care, we're confident this study and others like it will remind families and health care providers that women can trust themselves when it comes to having safe sex.