Myths? Facts? Truth? Untruths? Not sure?
We’ll keep it simple this time. Based on what Real Talk from teens like you, here are the top 10 most common myths about the HPV vaccine and the Real Talk about each one.
Here we go: The Top Ten HPV Myths Countdown
NUMBER 10: The HPV vaccine protects against all STDs.
REAL TALK: No, no, no. What the HPV vaccine does do, is protect against Human Papilloma Virus – which is the MOST COMMON STD in the US! Now, there are more than 100 variations of this virus, which can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, anus and penis. Yes, way more than “just” cervical cancer, and not just a “girls’” issue. It can also cause genital warts, which are not fatal, but as you can imagine, you don’t want to have them or spread them. Did you know that about 1 in 100 sexually active adults has genital warts? AND did you know that about 100 / 100 (yes, nearly all) of sexually active people will develop HPV in their lifetime?
NUMBER 9: The HPV vaccine causes birth defects later in life when you decide to have a baby.
REAL TALK: Not true. The way vaccines work, they can’t cause a birth defect years later. In fact, pregnant patients are allowed to get the vaccine if their doctor thinks it is warranted. What can interfere with a healthy and safe pregnancy, are some of the treatments for cervical cancer. The way that the cervix can be treated (surgically) to remove cancer, it might be hard for the cervix to stay tight throughout pregnancy, and as a result, your baby may be born too early to be healthy or even to survive. And with really severe cervical cancer, you can lose your entire uterus (where the baby develops) making it impossible to get pregnant. So, really, preventing the cancer is the safest thing for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby later in life.
NUMBER 8: The HPV vaccine is too new to be safe.
REAL TALK: The HPV vaccine was first recommended for girls in 2006 and for boys in 2011. Before a vaccine can even get approved by the FDA, a whole bunch of studies that prove that it works, as well that it is safe, need to be done. So those studies have been done, and the vaccines work and are safe. The benefits outweigh the risks, as they say. WAIT RISKS? WHAT DO YOU MEAN RISKS? Now, take a breath – risks for side effects are pain where the shot goes (OK, everyone knows a shot can hurt). some people get a little fever, and some people can get itching and swelling where the shot goes. Does that help ease your worry?
NUMBER 7: HPV isn’t that common, so I am not going to worry about it.
REAL TALK: Like we talked about in MYTH NUMBER 10 – HPV is the most common STD in the US. Nearly 100% of people will be exposed to HPV in their lives. And 1% of sexually active adults have genital warts.
NUMBER 6: The HPV vaccine is just a way for drug companies to make money, since I heard that your body cures HPV infection all on its own.
REAL TALK: So, back to the part where we said nearly 100% of sexually active people will get infected by HPV in their lives…. So, that is true, but most people won’t even know. If you get infected with a version of the virus that causes warts, you will know, since you will see that. But if you get a version of the virus that causes cervical cancer, you won’t know for a long time (shout out for regular Pap smears ladies!) since there are no symptoms. And guys, you can carry it without symptoms too, until you get warts or cancer of your penis. How else do you think it is spreading so easily?! Now, the good news is that a lot of times your body will attack and destroy HPV. But, the bad news is that that is not always the case, and in most people it is hard to predict who will go on to be cured without treatment, and who will go on to get cancer of the cervix or penis or vagina or anus or other parts….. (head, neck, mouth, throat, etc etc etc). So, the idea is this. Vaccinate. Less infection. Less cancer. Less spreading of HPV. Less death. Less disfiguring treatment. Less worry. Does it really make a difference? YES! There is published data that PROVES that with increased vaccination, rates of HPV infection are DOWN DOWN DOWN! That is exactly what we want!
NUMBER 5: The HPV vaccine will cure cancer if I get it, so I’ll just get it later if I need it.
REAL TALK: Nope. Not a cure. Only a prevention. You can get the vaccine if you have the infection, or if your epithelial cells (the ones that get infected by the virus) already show changes that are pre-cancerous, and it won’t make it worse. But it won’t treat what you have. It will just help prevent new infection.
NUMBER 4: The HPV vaccine will infect me with the virus or give me cancer.
REAL TALK: No, simply put. I know it can seem that way since you are getting injected with a tiny piece of the virus. But the very cool thing is about vaccines, is the part you get injected with is the outside of the virus so that your body can rev up its immune response and crank out antibodies to SEEK AND DESTROY it later if you get exposed to the whole virus the Usual Way (skin to skin contact through sexual activity). The inside of the virus has the genetic material that causes invasion of those epithelial cells on your cervix, penis, anus, mouth, etc. When those cells are invaded, the virus kind of takes over and makes those cells multiply in an abnormal way leading to cancer or warts.
NUMBER 3: I am not having sex so I don’t need it.
REAL TALK: Well, this is the PERFECT time! The idea is to get yourself immune before you get yourself exposed to HPV so that your body can SEEK and DESTROY the virus before it in turn attacks and takes over your epithelial cells. That is why the recommended ages for vaccination are 9 – 11 for boys and girls. You can get it later. You can catch up. But getting it before your start sexual activity gets that all taken care of for you later. Still need condoms etc when you DO become active. But nothing is 100% at preventing STDs, so you need the vaccine too.
NUMBER 2: Getting the HPV vaccine is going to make me take all sorts of sexual risks, and start sexual activity earlier.
REAL TALK: This is simply not true. A lot of adults worry about this one. There are a lot of reasons young people take sexual risks, but feeling liberated by getting a vaccine is not one of them. In fact, you were too young to remember this, but you probably had the Hepatitis B vaccine when you were a baby. You know how you get Hep B? Usually through sexual activity or exchange of blood (like through sex or sharing needles, or other exposures to blood.) Now, did that vaccine years back make you run out and have sex and use IV drugs? Another way to think about it. let’s use the seatbelt analogy. Does putting on your seatbelt make you drive like a maniac? Most (not all, and that is cool too!) humans are sexual beings so sexual exposure is going to happen for most of you. Preparation is the best prevention.
NUMBER 1: Only “other” people get STDs. I am monogamous. And I will only have a single sexual partner. So I don’t need to worry about STDs.
REAL TALK: I think this is the worst part that people think about all STDs including HPV. That only “dirty” people get them, or “other people” or less selective people or some other way of looking down on people with STDs. And then when people like yourselves DO get an STD, you are shocked and upset and feel dirty and inferior. Here is the deal about STDs including HPV: They are common. They have been since the beginning of time. Nearly 100% of sexually active people will get exposed to an STD over the course of their sexual life. And even if you are monogamous, your relationship may end, and you may fall in love again and have an intimate relationship with someone else later in your life. And that person may have done the same. And when you sleep with someone, you are “sleeping” with all the other people that person has slept with.
You don’t know what the future holds. So you protect yourself now. Vaccinate. Then you protect yourself later. Condoms etc.
And most importantly – when you think you are ready for sex with someone, I always say, if you cannot talk about sexual history with that person, and ask about STDs, then you are not ready to have sex together. Not an easy talk, true, but an important one, and a good measure of if you are “There” yet in your relationship.
- HPV vaccine: 3 shots over 6 months.
- Get them all.
- Lifetime of protection: Priceless.