For some opponents of the HPV vaccination, the line of thinking goes like this: Give young women a shot to protect them from certain strands of the most common sexually transmitted disease, and you give them license to throw all coital caution out the window. But according to a new study, this doesn't seem to be the case.
Published this month in JAMA Internal Medicine, the research looked at insurance claims of about 20,000 12- to 18-year-old girls who received the shot and over 100,000 12- to 18-year-old girls who hadn't over a five-year period to compare the rates of STD infections. The researchers found that there was no association between the HPV vaccination and higher incidences of STDs. Meaning: Getting the vaccine didn't lead teens to have any more risky sex than they were having before.
According to the CDC, nearly all sexually active men and women will get HPV, or human papillomavirus, which can cause genital warts and cancer. The HPV vaccine can prevent cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers caused by two specific strains of the virus, and genital warts caused by another two. It is administered in three shots over a period of six months.
"I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that some girls may develop a false sense of security about STDs and either start having earlier sex or unsafe sex" if they get the vaccine, Anupam B. Jena, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School, told The Huffington Post. However, these assumptions are wrong.
According to Jena, this false idea may be a big reason why there are so few who've received the shot in the U.S. As of 2013, only 57 percent of girls between the ages of 13 and 17 had gotten at least one dose of the HPV vaccine, and a mere 38 percent had actually gotten the full three recommended doses.
The new study also looked at the STD rates of all the girls a year before they were vaccinated. It found that while vaccinated girls did have higher rates of STDs compared to the non-vaccinated girls, these differences existed before they were vaccinated, too.
Jena said using STDs as their metric allowed the researchers to analyze a large sample to trace whether the shot was associated with unsafe sex. While this metric alone cannot prove whether young women were engaging in sex any earlier due to receiving the HPV vaccine, Jena said that the data can be interpreted to mean that the vaccine doesn't lead to an increase in sexual activity.
If Jena's findings sound familiar, that's because research has been supporting these ideas for years now. In 2011, the CDC found that the HPV vaccination does not encourage girls to increase their sexual activity, and the American Academy of Pediatrics released similar findings in 2012. All of this research essentially debunks the idea that girls could get a false sense of security from getting the HPV vaccination and have unsafe sex without thinking about the potential health consequences.
This logic was also used as an argument against giving birth control to young women, but research suggests that that doesn't increase the likelihood they'll engage in risky sexual behavior, either.
According to the CDC, over 4,000 women died from cervical cancer in 2011. While it may not be "unreasonable" to be worried about the potential negative consequences of the HPV vaccine, Jena said that he hopes his new study can assure people that the concerns they might have are most likely going to be outweighed by the benefits.