In 2006, when the FDA approved the first HPV vaccine for girls and women ages 9 to 26, one of the concerns opponents expressed was that it might make young girls think it’s OK to have sex.
That’s because the HPV vaccine protects against a virus that is contracted during sexual contact; specifically, four strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause cervical cancer and some vaginal, vulvar, penile and throat cancers.
In Nashville, where I live, one religious leader claimed, “What we are encouraging is abstinence and sexual purity. If they have a relationship with the Lord, they will recognize that they don’t need that vaccine.”
We’ve heard a lot less of this rhetoric lately, now that the novelty of the vaccine has worn off and the initial controversy has subsided. It always seemed like a bit of a ridiculous objection, since girls who become sexually active are probably not weighing the risk of some far-off consequence like cervical cancer.
Heck, even the notoriously conservative Family Research Council has come around to acknowledging that either through abuse or by marrying someone who is a carrier of the virus, “it is possible that even someone practicing abstinence and fidelity could benefit” from the vaccine.
Still, opponents should be pleased with this news: The journal Pediatrics published a new study this week that shows the HPV vaccination is not associated with increased sexual activity among girls.
The researchers looked back at records for almost 500 girls who received the vaccine at ages 11 or 12 compared to about 900 girls who did not get the vaccine. Then they looked at whether the girls, over the next several years, had any record of being counseled about birth control, received contraception (specifically for birth control, not for acne or irregular periods), or had a diagnosis of pregnancy or certain STIs — all markers that imply sexual activity.
The researchers found no significant difference between girls who did and did not receive the vaccine.
Of course there are some limitations to the study, such as that some girls considered unvaccinated could have been vaccinated elsewhere, and girls could have received reproductive health care at places that weren’t counted in the study. A more conclusive set of results could come from following girls in real time over the years and collecting more detail about their health care and behavior.
However, this study provides important initial information that refutes concerns about HPV leading to increased sexual activity. Future research on concerns about the vaccine, then, might be better focused on learning more about long-term safety and effectiveness questions, rather than behavioral concerns.
Now we’ll just have to wait to see if there’s equal worry over whether boys who get the HPV vaccine are more likely to be more sexually active. I wouldn’t count on it.