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6 myths about HPV

Doc Smitty why the HPV vaccine is effective, a necessity

The Basics of HPV

Human papilloma virus is a cause of warts that affect the genital areas of males and females. They can also cause infection of the mouth and throat.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States.

HPV does not show symptoms for many people who are infected but it can lead to cancer of the cervix or penis. Every year approximately 17,500 women and 9,300 men will be affected by cancers that are caused by HPV.

HPV Vaccination

Fortunately, we now have a vaccine that prevents HPV. It was licensed for use in 2006 and targets four strains of the virus: 6, 11, 16 and 18. Types 6 and 11 account for 90 percent of genital warts and types 16 and 18 lead to cervical cancer.

Any time something is “new,” rumors abound. I was privy to an online discussion about HPV on Facebook this week ... because it’s not the best venue for having these discussions I had to hold my fingers (tongue).

But, here are some of the myths I saw that I felt needed to be addressed, beginning with the HPV vaccine has been proven ineffective.This myth takes on a few different forms. I’ll address each one.

HPV Vaccine Myths

1. Myth: The HPV vaccine does not decrease the amount of HPV disease.

Truth: In the United States, the percentage of cases of HPV caused by those strains in the vaccine dropped by 56 percent after the introduction of the vaccine. Other studies in the UK and Australia showed decreases in the number of HPV cases after introduction of the vaccine. The vaccine prevents HPV disease.

2. Myth: The effectiveness of the vaccine wears off over time.

Truth: This study in Pediatrics showed that, at the end of eight years of surveillance, those who received the vaccine continued to have antibodies to the virus. There is no indication that will decrease over time but studies continue. Even if we found a fall-off, a booster could be used to prolong coverage and if we could get protection for any period of time it would decrease the rates of HPV and cervical cancer.

3. Myth: Even if it prevents HPV, the vaccination has never been shown to prevent cancer so why get it?

Truth: Despite the logical conclusion that decreasing HPV infection rates should decrease the rate of cervical cancer, some challenge the HPV vaccine by saying that it has never been shown to decrease the rate of cervical cancer. This study in Denmark showed a 40 percent decrease in atypical cells found on Pap smears (a precursor to cervical cancer). I believe that more studies like this will show even more proof that it is preventing cancer.

4. Myth: The HPV vaccine is not safe.

Truth: This is perhaps the most pervasive of all the different myths about HPV vaccine. News reports and anecdotal stories of teenagers who have received the vaccine and then experience weird, otherwise unexplainable symptoms can be quite compelling. The problem with relying on those stories is that, even before the HPV vaccine, teenagers had events or health outcomes that were unexplainable. Even those who choose not to be vaccinated today have some of the same symptoms. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had some way to determine if these events were caused by the vaccine or were merely coincidental?

Fortunately, we do. If we look at a large population of teenagers who received the vaccine and compare them to another population who did not, we can see if the vaccine increased the risk for bad outcomes or if there were events that would have occurred anyway.

Multiple studies have done this. One of my favorites is one that included almost 200,000 girls who received one or more doses of HPV vaccine. It showed a slight increase in passing out after the shot (we ask girls to sit for a while after receiving it) and skin infection, but no other increase health risks. Another included almost 1 million and showed no increase in autoimmune, neurologic or blood clotting disorders.

I am not concerned about the safety of these vaccines. I understand that, with anything new, parents are going to have concerns but as more and more data come in, the safety of HPV vaccine is confirmed. My kids will get it when they are the right age.

5. Myth: The HPV vaccine allows or causes teenagers to be promiscuous. (Related: We shouldn’t vaccinate because it protects promiscuous kids.)

Truth: This is the most infuriating myth for me regarding the HPV vaccination debate. It angers me because it preys upon the fear of some parents that their child might take sexual risk as a result of something the parents have done. If that is a concern, it might be justifiable if it were true ... BUT it’s not.

Studies have shown that girls who receive the vaccine are no more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior or to have more sexually transmitted diseases. Using that myth to scare other parents is inappropriate, just stop.

6. Myth: Because I’ve raised my child “right,” they won’t be at risk for HPV.

Truth: What? This line of thinking has so many holes.

First of all, you won’t always know about your child’s activities. Trust me, you won’t always know. You may think you know, but I’ve diagnosed a pregnancy in more than one girl who “never had sex.” Stuff happens.

Protect your child even if you’re sure they’d never have sex or won’t until they meet “the one.” Why? You can’t predict you child’s future partner’s sexual behavior. Maybe your children will grow up, meet the partner of their dreams and only have sex with that person for their whole life. But, maybe their partner’s history isn’t the same. Their partner could carry HPV, could give it to your child and leave them at risk for cervical or penile cancer. Why risk it? By withholding the shot, you are only putting your child at risk.

These are some of the common myths I’ve heard about HPV. I’m sure there are many more out there. But I urge you to go in with an open mind and talk with your doctor about your questions or concerns. We’d be happy to help!

Get to know Justin Smith, M.D.

Justin Smith, M.D., is a pediatrician in Trophy Club  and the Medical Advisor for Digital Health for Cook Children's in Fort Worth, Texas. Dr. Smith is an experienced keynote speaker for a variety of topics including pediatric/parenting topics, healthcare social media and physician leadership. If you are interested in having Dr. Smith present to your conference or meeting, please contact him at

He has an active community on both Facebook and Twitter as @TheDocSmitty and writes weekly for Cook Children's He believes that strategic use of social media and technology by pediatricians to connect with families can deepen their relationship and provide a new level of convenience for both of their busy lifestyles. Dr. Smith’s innovative pediatric clinic, a pediatric clinic “designed by you,” open now. Click to learn more. To make an appointment, call 817-347-8100.


HPV shot schedule

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following:


HPV vaccines are given as a series of three shots over 6 months to protect against HPV infection and the health problems that HPV infection can cause. There are two HPV vaccines (Cervarix and Gardasil). Girls and young women should get either HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer.


One of the HPV vaccines (Gardasil) also protects against genital warts and anal cancer in both females and males. Boys should get this HPV vaccine to prevent anal cancer and genital warts. Girls can get this vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, vulvar cancer, vaginal cancer, anal cancer and genital warts.

HPV vaccines offer the best protection to girls and boys who receive all three vaccine doses and have time to develop an immune response before being sexually active with another person. That's why HPV vaccination is recommended for preteen girls and boys at age 11 or 12 years.

Who else should get the HPV vaccine?

All kids who are 11 or 12 years old should get the three dose series of HPV vaccine to protect against HPV. Teen boys and girls who did not get the vaccine or did not get all three doses when they were younger should get it now. Young women can get HPV vaccine through age 26, and young men can get vaccinated through age 21. The vaccine is also recommended for any man who has sex with men and also for men with compromised immune systems (including HIV) through age 26, if they did not get HPV vaccine when they were younger.




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