Gardasil is a relatively new vaccine, approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration 2006 ago to protect against human papillomavirus (HPV). It’s one of two vaccines available to protect against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers.
But the vaccine, approved for girls as young as 9, has not been without controversy. The vaccine has generated its share of Internet warnings, even earning an entry on the myth-debunking website Snopes. Some parents don’t want to think about their preteen daughters being susceptible to HPV, the most common sexually transmitted disease. Others fear that the vaccine just hasn’t been around long enough.
The Centers for Disease Control says the HPV vaccine is safe, and it’s recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In 2008, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law requiring children to get the first of a series of vaccines before 6th grade.
Parents, however, can opt out of the vaccine for their child, and getting children vaccinated against HPV has been a concern across the country, says Dr. Sandra Sommer, the quality assurance and policy manager for the Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Immunization.
The CDC estimates that about 79 million Americans are infected with HPV, with about 14 million contracting the virus every year. The virus is so common, according to the CDC, that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. In most cases, the infection goes away on its own. But when it doesn’t, HPV can cause medical issues such as cancer and genital warts. And the cancer symptoms can develop years—even decades—after someone is infected.
HPV is the major cause of cervical cancer. More than 10,000 American women get cervical cancer each year, although diagnoses and associated deaths have fallen substantially over the last several decades due to regular screening, according to the American Cancer Society.
Gardasil targets the four strains of HPV that account for about 70 percent of all cervical cancers, including the two strains that cause the majority of genital warts. HPV is also linked to anal cancer and rare cases of cancer of the penis.
The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 26 get the vaccine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that it be given to boys and girls at age 11 or 12. The thinking behind it is this: The vaccine works best when given before a person becomes sexually active.
According to an April 2013 survey published in the Journal Pediatrics, 48 percent of adolescents have had sex by the time they turn 17. By age 19, the percentage jumps to 71 percent.
Giving the vaccine at 11 or 12 makes sense because it’s when children have to get their Tdap booster (which protects against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) in order to enter 6th grade, Sommer says.
“It’s a safe vaccine,” Sommer states. “Basically, it prevents cancer.”
Studies are ongoing, but like any vaccine or medication, there can be side effects and reactions in some people. And the vaccine’s effectiveness over time is still being reviewed.
The CDC monitors vaccine safety through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. From June 2006 to March 2013, about 57 million doses of HPV vaccines were distributed. Of the 22,000 “adverse-event reports,” 92 percent were classified as not serious. The most commonly reported symptoms were fainting (syncope), dizziness, nausea, headache, fever and hives, as well as pain, redness and swelling at the injection site.
Studies have shown that serious side effects such as Guillain-Barre syndrome and allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis weren’t any more common with the Gardasil vaccine than with other vaccines, according to the CDC. In the cases when deaths were reported, investigations found that the cause was explained by factors other than the vaccine.
“Gardasil…and its benefits continue to outweigh its risks,” the CDC states on the vaccine safety section of its website, cdc.gov/vaccinesafety. The “FDA and CDC continue to find that Gardasil is a safe and effective vaccine that will potentially benefit the health of millions of women.”