Katie Couric’s recent segment on HPV vaccination was done in an irresponsible manner. The segment was framed as an opportunity for parents to learn about "both sides" of the "controversy" over vaccines that protect against human papillomavirus (HPV) so they could make an informed decision on whether or not to vaccinate their children.
As a physician board certified in Gynecologic Oncology, I have treated hundreds of women who suffer from ovarian, uterine, vulvar or cervical cancer. I advise my patients on treatment options that are rooted in evidence-based scientific research. As such, the segment on HPV on Couric’s daytime show, Katie, was an exercise in fear mongering and did little to achieve the intended goal of providing parents with the information necessary to make an informed decision regarding the HPV vaccine. It is a disservice to the public whenever anecdotal stories are reported alongside scientifically backed data with the same level of creditability.
Everyone needs to understand that HPV is a significant cause of cancer. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and virtually all sexually active individuals will get it at some point in their lives. About 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But for most people, HPV is not a problem. In fact, 90 percent of all HPV infections, including the cancer-causing strains, will resolve on their own without treatment. The HPV infections that do not clear up on their own can become a serious health risk.
This year alone, it’s estimated that 12,340 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer. Nearly all cervical cancer cases are caused by high-risk strains of HPV. The rate of cancers caused by HPV has soared in recent years, according the National Cancer Institute.
This is why the HPV vaccine is so important. The vaccine aims to prevent HPV infection. By CDC estimates, if 80 percent of teens received the recommended three doses of the vaccine, an estimated 53,000 additional cases of cervical cancer could be prevented over the lifetimes of girls aged 12 and older.
Of course, there are possible side effects of the HPV vaccine, but these tend to be minor compared with developing cancer. To be clear, the benefits of the vaccines far outweigh any potential risks. Of the nearly 57 million doses of the vaccine administered in the United States between June 2006 and March of this year, there have been about 22,000 reports of adverse events—that’s 0.04 percent. About 92 percent of those adverse events were categorized as minor, such as injection site pain, nausea and headache. The remaining 8 percent were considered serious, which included fainting, vomiting, generalized weakness.
I encourage parents and young women who are deciding about the HPV vaccine to look at the science behind it. Yes, it is tempting to be swayed by one person’s tragic story. But in my practice as a Gynecologic Oncologist, I have witnessed many lives cut short by cervical and vulvar cancer, which is also tragic. The HPV vaccine has the potential to change this.
We should not let one individual’s unfortunate story overshadow the staggering number of people who have been vaccinated without incident and the number of cancer diagnoses that have been prevented by the HPV vaccine. I invite your questions and thoughts on this most important topic.
Get the facts about HPV and cancer.