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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Gardasil Has Already Drastically Cut HPV Infections in Young Women

By Phil Plait

More good vaccine news! A new study published in the journal Pediatrics shows that the presence of human papillomavirus, or HPV, has dropped sharply in recent years in young American women. Why? The Gardasil vaccine.

This is consistent with other reports, too: In Australia, HPV-induced cases of genital warts have declined since Gardasil was introduced, and HPV infection rates were seen to be dropping in the U.S. as well.

HPV is awful. Two strains of it, HPV 16 and 18, are responsible for a staggering 70 percent of cervical cancer cases in women. HPV can also cause oral cancer, genital warts, and cancer of the vulva, anus, penis, and more. And here’s the kicker: About 80 million people in the U.S. carry HPV, with 14 million more cases every year.

But we’re fighting it, and we’re starting to win.

Specifically, in this new study they examined the presence of the virus in groups of women from before the vaccine was introduced (from 2003–06) and then after (from 2009–12). They looked for several strains of HPV, including HPV 16 and 18 (as well as HPV 6 and 11, which aren’t as dangerous but which are also prevented by Gardasil).

For young women aged 14–19, the presence of those four strains of HPV (and some others) were found to drop by an incredible 64 percent overall, and by 34 percent in women aged 20–24.

That’s terrific! And we can do better; uptake (the rate at which people get the vaccine) in the U.S. is still rather low. It should be given both to preteen boys and girls, too. I'll note my own daughter has had the full (three vaccine) course of Gardasil, and my wife and I are up-to-date on all our vaccinations, too.

The thing is, HPV is transmitted sexually, and in the currently screwed-up U.S. sexual culture, that means even talking about such things is frowned upon. That’s bad, especially when Gardasil is attacked by people across the political spectrum.* Anti-vaxxers as a group don’t like it because, well, they’re anti-vaxxers, and a lot of conservatives don’t like it because they think giving it to young girls gives them a free pass to have sex.

But this is wrong. Anti-vaxxers generally are wrong, but study after study has shown that Gardasil does not cause all the woe and damage anti-vaxxers claim (despite some mainstream scaremongering).

As for the claim about Gardasil increasing sexual activity, that’s a) ridiculous, and 2) ignores the fact that boys should get it as well. Funny how that’s never mentioned.

But it’s a common belief. Worse, a lot of conservatives have pushed hard for abstinence-only education, which has been proven categorically not to work. In fact, that type of thing (like virginity pledges) tends to increase teen pregnancies and occurrence of sexually transmitted diseases. Why? Because teenagers will have sex anyway, and if they aren’t educated about it, they get infected and/or pregnant.

If HPV had a lobby, it’d be pushing abstinence-only education.

There’s some more (tentative) good news in this case, too: President Obama cut funding for abstinence-only education in the White House FY 2017 budget. To put this in perspective, we’ve been throwing away $10 million a year on this nonsense.

The bad news here is that I have little doubt that the GOP-controlled Congress will put that money back into the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s more than just a colossal waste, it’s spending money to enforce ignorance, essentially ensuring more young Americans get pregnant and infected with horrible diseases.

When you ignore science, when you ignore reality, the consequences can be grave. We are making solid progress on a terrible virus that causes a lot of terrible diseases. But like all progress, it must be worked at, fought for. We have the science to prevent a lot of suffering. We should use it.

*One has to be careful when talking politics and anti-vaxxers. This topic isn’t strictly left or right, though a case can be made for certain groups being anti-vax due to their specific politics.

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