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The Facts About The HPV Vaccine


There was a bit of a dust-up at last week's Republican candidates' debate. It had to do with Texas Governor Rick Perry's 2007 mandate that middle-school girls in his state receive the HPV vaccine. The order was later overturned by the legislature. At the debate, Governor Perry was asked if he now considered that order a mistake.

G: It was, and indeed, I--


PERRY: If I had it to do over again, I would have done it differently. I would have gone to the legislature, worked with them. But what was driving me was, obviously, making a difference about young people's lives. Cervical cancer is a horrible way to die.

CORNISH: To which presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann had this response:

CORNISH: To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong.


BACHMANN: That should never be done. That's a violation of a liberty interest. That's - little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don't get a mulligan. They don't get a do-over.

CORNISH: To find out more about the HPV vaccine, we called Dr. Jessica Kahn of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. She was on her way to an international conference on HPV in Berlin and stopped in at member station WVXU to speak with us. Dr. Kahn, welcome.

CORNISH: Thank you.

CORNISH: So, first remind us of what exactly the vaccine guards against, because there are many strains of HPV.

KAHN: The vaccines that are licensed currently protect against four different types of HPV - Human Papillomavirus. One of the vaccines protects against HPV 6 and 11, which cause almost all genital warts, and both of the licensed HPV vaccines protect against HPV 16 and 18, which cause most cervical cancers and other HPV-related cancers. Now, the vaccines are about 90 to 100 percent effective in preventing infection with the Human Papillomavirus types that are targeted by the vaccines, and similarly they're between 90 and 100 percent effective in preventing pre-cancers that are caused by those HPV types.

CORNISH: So, why do these vaccines, why is it necessary for kids so young to get it?

KAHN: It's important for kids to get the vaccine before they are exposed to HPV because the vaccines are not effective if they are administered after exposure to the HPV types that they target. And what's really important to understand about HPV is that it's spread through skin-to-skin genital contact. It's not spread through bodily fluids, so a young person doesn't have to have sexual intercourse to acquire HPV. And many young people in the early and mid-teens are experimenting with such behaviors and thus they acquire HPV very early on in the teen years. So, for example, in a recent study that was done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 percent of the 14- to 19-year-old young women had already acquired HPV.

CORNISH: And we have had presidential candidates raise the issue also of its safety, but what research is there out there about the safety of it?

KAHN: There's a great deal of research, and both HPV vaccines have been associated with minor side effects. And those minor side effects are common with all childhood vaccines. So, those might include redness at the site, swelling and pain. But no serious side effects have been causally linked to either of these vaccines, either of the two vaccines.

CORNISH: Meaning there may have, some people may have reported some kind of side effects, but that they haven't been factually linked to the vaccine itself.

KAHN: Exactly, exactly. So, there are many disorders that may happen during adolescence. Those might include autoimmune diseases, neurologic diseases and so on. So, they may develop a disorder after vaccination, but those two occurrences - developing the disorder and being vaccinated - are true, true but unrelated. So, the disorder's not caused by the vaccine; it just occurs with a temporal relationship to the vaccine.

CORNISH: With HPV being back in the news, what is sort of the buzz in terms of what doctors like yourself are talking about going into this conference?

KAHN: Many clinicians are concerned about the misleading reports in the media about the safety related to HPV vaccines. These are some of the safest vaccines ever tested, and they could have a substantial public health impact. And clinicians worry that parents will be concerned about vaccinating their children and that clinicians will be hesitant to recommend vaccinations. So, clinicians are quite concerned about these unsubstantiated reports of adverse effects related to the vaccines.

CORNISH: Dr. Jessica Kahn of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Thank you so much.

KAHN: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.