Although there have been concerns that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine promotes unsafe sex among adolescents, a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that there is no such association after all.
According to the study authors, nearly 25% of girls aged 14 to 19 years and 45% of women aged 20 to 24 years have HPV, which can lead to cervical, vulvar, and vaginal cancers. While the HPV vaccine can prevent such cancers caused by certain HPV strains, only 39% of girls aged 13 to 17 years had received the 3 recommended doses by 2013.
The authors partly attributed those low HPV immunization rates to concerns that the vaccine lowers the perceived risks of acquiring a sexually transmitted infection (STI), thus promoting unsafe sexual activity. But, after examining changes in STI rates among 21,610 girls aged 12 to 18 years who were vaccinated against HPV and 186,501 matched females who were not, the researchers observed similar increases in STIs across both groups in the year following immunization, which ruled out HPV vaccination as a culprit.
“Given low rates of HPV vaccination among adolescent females in the United States, our findings should be reassuring to physicians, parents, and policy makers that HPV vaccination is unlikely to promote unsafe sexual activity,” the authors concluded.
However, Robert Benarcyzk, PhD, noted in a related commentary, “this reassurance leaves us with the question, ‘How can we use these findings to address concerns of anxious parents of adolescents?’”
“To date, much research has been conducted to identify HPV vaccination barriers, but less research has been conducted to identify the preferred content and mode of delivery of information to mitigate these barriers,” Dr. Benarcyzk wrote. “Addressing this knowledge gap through the development and delivery of information relative to all key partners (adolescents, their parents, and their health care professionals) will be critical in removing the stigma of HPV vaccine in our efforts to fully use this vaccine.”