When I was 13 I got the Gardasil shot. That’s is when I heard of HPV. I never really thought about it until recently. The last 6 months I have seen the Merck commercial where a boy and girl are Benjamin Buttoning it and aging backwards. They are talking to their parents asking them if they knew of a vaccine that could save their lives and imply if their parents were good parents, they would do anything to save their children and get them this vaccine. I am not a parent and feel like shit after watching it and can only imagine how a parent feels. I got my vaccine, but I don’t know what it was for, even though I am protected, what am I even protected from?
First the Definition
Human Papillomaviruses, notice how it is plural? That’s because there are different types of strains. There are about 200 strains of HPV, holy shit. It’s considered a sexually transmitted infection and the most common one in the U.S. Anyone who is sexually active can get it. The way strains are classified is by their risk either low or high risk. If you get a low-risk strain it will eventually take care of itself, but what happens when you have a high-risk HPV?
The Category is High-Risk
A high-risk HPV that goes untreated can turn into certain types of cancers. In fact, most cervical cancer cases are from HPV. The CDC reports that at least 90-80% of people who are sexually active will be affected by HPV. HPV impacts the cells that are present on the top layer of our bodies, like the skin. Cancer is basically a disease of rapid cell growth. Certain strains of high-risk HPV can do things in our cells that result in cancer. By the numbers and outcomes, I would say that HPV is serious business. I see why the Merck commercial is guilt-tripping parents to get their children vaccinated.
A Shot of Gardasil
All right, so this can’t be the end of the story. If your mother didn’t love you enough like the Merck commercial implies, and didn’t get you vaccinated then what? Ideally, the vaccines are supposed to be given before being sexually active. It’s not the only prevention measure though. An STI test will not show HPV. However, there is an HPV test that women can take, and Pap test can also help to detect HPV. If there is something going on there are treatments for cervical abnormalities caused by HPV. Women between the ages of 21 to 65 should be getting a Pap smear every 3 years. There are steps that can be done before it turns into cancer.
After all this research, I am a bit annoyed. Why wasn’t this mentioned in Sex Ed., I mean Abstinence Ed.? They focused a lot on pregnancy and other STIs like chlamydia. Not saying they are not as important, but with most cases of cervical cancer to be caused by an STI that should be acknowledged. I was lucky my mom got me the vaccine, but if she didn’t, I would be unfazed by HPV’s dangers. No one informed me HPV is a serious health concern. Only 63% of girls receive the vaccine and 50% of boys. Rwanda has a better vaccine rate of HPV than the U.S. This is a public health issue, and now I see why the Merck ad was created. Most parents don’t want to acknowledge their children will have sex one day and don’t get them vaccinated. Instead, they bury their heads in the sand and their now adult daughter or son has cancer.
Around the time I got the Gardasil shot there was some controversy around it. People were concerned it wasn’t safe, but it has been shown to be safe. I wondered if my friends got the shot or did this impact their parent’s choice for getting the shot. I asked my friends and cousin if they got a vaccine for HPV. One of friends didn’t get a vaccine. One did, but didn’t complete the series. 2 others did get a shot. That’s not terrible odds. 2 out of 4 of the people I care about in life might be at risk for developing cancer if they don’t know to get the proper care.
I don’t have any questions about HPV, but after all this research I am not questioning its prevention measures. This is a public health concern and I feel we are not doing enough to educate parents or children about HPV and the long-term consequence going unprotected can have. That’s a story for another time.