With ongoing debate, HPV vaccine gaining attention

Since actor Michael Douglas recently claimed his throat cancer was caused by HPV, more people have joined the debate on the usually hushed STD.

HPV, the human papillomavirus, causes roughly 33,300 cases of cancer in men and women each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cathy Flanagan, a women’s health nurse practitioner at the UA Student Health Center, said HPV is one of the lesser-discussed STDs because people don’t really know much about it.

“There are probably over 100 strains of HPV,” Flanagan said. “A lot of times it’s under the skin and doesn’t show up outside.”

This elusiveness often makes HPV hard to detect and diagnose; in fact, men can’t even be tested for the virus. Women often learn they have HPV through pap smears or by the appearance of genital warts, one of the side effects of certain strains.

“[Doctors] are seeing more and more oral cancers in men from the HPV virus,” Flanagan said. “Condoms are probably the number one way to protect yourself against HPV if you’re going to be sexually active. However, if your partner has HPV in the skin that’s not covered or protected by the condom, you can still transmit the virus.”

In 2006, an HPV vaccine was released and consequently sparked a debate in the medical community.

Justine Betzler, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, said her parents took her to get vaccinated soon after it was released.

“My parents got me vaccinated because they wanted to protect me from cervical cancer and at the suggestion of my pediatrician,” Betzler said. “I haven’t really heard any bad things. I know the actual shot burned more than other vaccinations I’ve had, but it wasn’t bad at all.”

Flanagan said the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine to be given to females ages 9 to 26 and recently, males of the same age.

“I think the number of people that get the vaccination in Alabama pretty much reflects what’s going on around the country,” Flanagan said. “Now, a lot of pediatricians are offering the vaccine at their offices, and a lot of people may be getting vaccinated before they ever get to high school.”

While Flanagan doesn’t think the HPV vaccine will become a part of the mandatory battery of immunizations anytime soon, some states have tried to make it a requirement.

“They tried to do it in Texas – to mandate that young people get the vaccine – and it just didn’t go over well politically,” Flanagan said.

Although there were arguments over the safeness of the HPV vaccine because it was so new, Flanagan said the most common side effect was site tenderness.

In 2011, the CDC reported 32 percent of girls ages 9 to 26 had received all three doses of the vaccine, compared to the 28 percent of boys 9 to 26. The CDC also reported teenage girls were more likely to be vaccinated for HPV than girls who had not hit puberty.

Regardless of the opinions on HPV, many think the vaccine – and Michael Douglas’s public statement – is a step in the right direction when dealing with education and treatment of STDs.

“The fact that medicine today has been able to create this vaccine is a great stride in my opinion,” Betzler said. “Personally, I think it should be mandatory, and I don’t think that the fact that it protects against a sexually transmitted disease should deter parents from wanting it for their children or doctors from suggesting it. I believe one argument is that it condones risqué behavior.”


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