What You Need to Know About the HPV Vaccine, and Why It's Controversial

Almost everyone carries the human papillomavirus (HPV), and it’s usually pretty harmless. But a few strains are the main cause of cervical cancer.

Almost everyone carries the human papillomavirus (HPV), and it's usually pretty harmless. But a few strains are the main cause of cervical cancer. Gardasil, the HPV vaccine approved by the FDA in 2006, guards against two of these strains, plus two other strains that are responsible for most genital warts.

Since most adults have already been exposed to HPV, the vaccine is recommended for girls who haven't become sexually active yet. (The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination at age 11 or 12, but Gardasil is approved for girls as young as 9.)

So far, so good. But the introduction of this new vaccine has stirred up a small fuss.

The controversy
Perhaps the main fear of the vaccine's opponents is that it might encourage adolescent promiscuity.

H. Hunter Handsfield, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Washington and a nationally recognized STD expert, believes most parents are all for it, however. "It can prevent cancer?" he says, parroting the most common parental concern. "Well, duh, give my kid the shot."

Still, questions come up all the time because the vaccine is so new. Here are a couple of the most common:

1. Should boys get the HPV vaccine?
Men rarely get cancer from HPV, but they do pass the virus to their female partners, and they do get genital warts from HPV as well. In Europe and the U.K., Gardasil is licensed for use in both boys and girls, although so far only Austria's public health program actually recommends vaccinations for both.

The reason it's not generally recommended for boys in the U.S. is because it hasn't been approved for use in boys. General thinking may be, too, that it's more cost-effective, from a public-health standpoint, to vaccinate girls only. And insurance companies won't cover vaccines that aren't recommended. Gardasil retails at around $375 for the three-dose course.

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Louise Sloan
Last Updated: October 16, 2008

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