New concerns over the safety of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine raised by GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachman recently caused quite a media debate when she alleged the vaccine causes mental retardation. What is the truth behind HPV? Is the vaccine safe and effective? Here are the facts.
What is the HPV Vaccine?
Over 100 types of HPV exist, and while some kinds are high-risk, others have lower risk. High-risk HPV can lead to cervical cancer, and low-risk HPV can produce genital warts, but not cervical cancer. More than 30 forms of HPV are transmitted through sexual intercourse.
There are currently two vaccines approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent HPV types known to cause most cervical cancers. These vaccines are Cervarix, made by pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline and Gardasil, a product of Merck. In addition to preventing the two HPV types that cause up to 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, Gardasil has also been shown to prevent 90 percent of genital warts as well as anal, vulvar and vaginal cancers. Both vaccines, given in three shots over six months, are highly effective in preventing specific, but not all, HPV types.
What About the Types of HPV the Shots Don’t Protect Against?
The vaccines available today will not prevent about 30 percent of the cervical cancers diagnosed each year, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For this reason, the CDC urges all women, beginning at age 21, to stay diligent in getting regular pap tests to screen for cervical cancer.
How Big of a Problem is HPV?
HPV is a group of the viruses that can cause cervical cancer. It is very common. About 6 million new genital HPV infections occur each year in the United States, and the majority of women and their partners will be exposed to HPV during their lifetimes, according to the Gynecological Cancer Foundation, a not-for-profit charitable organization dedicated to raising awareness about all forms of gynecologic cancer. The FDA said about 80 percent of women will be affected by HPV by age 50.