TIP Talk!

Thursday November 17, 2016

What We Know About HPV Vaccine Safety


As vaccine advocates, it’s important to recognize that as safe and effective as vaccines are, there can sometimes be side effects.

We at The Immunization Partnership often receive messages from worried individuals who saw a story on Facebook about a young girl/boy/woman/man who believe they we were negatively impacted by vaccination. “Is this true?” The messages ask. “Can this happen to my child?”

And their concern is understandable. It’s impossible to read the stories sent to us and not feel heartbroken by the experiences of those depicted.

We can’t comment on specific stories. That’s neither our role nor our place. What we can talk about, however, is the science — what research says about the possibility or probability of a bad reaction from a vaccine occurring.

The most almost everyone will experience following a vaccine is a little soreness, headache or fever. But just like individuals can be allergic to penicillin or strawberries, there are rare individuals who are severely allergic to a vaccine component.

When we say rare, we mean it. You have a better chance of becoming a billionaire than you do of having a severe reaction to a vaccine in the United States.

Even still, should families be worried?  

It’s true that some people can get sick in one way or another after being vaccinated — but it’s important to recognize the difference between two events happening at the same time, and one event causing the other.

In other words, doctors point out, people get sick all the time, whether they’ve been vaccinated or not. It would be worrisome if illness rates were significantly higher for vaccinated people — but they’re not. The rate of illness is the same for both groups — signaling that the vaccine almost certainly didn’t cause the illness. In general, serious medical complications from diseases like measles or chickenpox are far, far more common than any risks from vaccines.

But this information often doesn’t get out to the public. And it has been of special concern lately after questions were raised about whether the HPV vaccine — which is supposed to be given to pre-teens and teenagers to prevent cervical and other cancers — could cause autoimmune diseases. Some of these have been anecdotes gone viral on the Internet, but one was a study out of Italy claiming that the vaccine might cause symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia. It’s the sort of claim that could scare parents away from a vaccine that has the potential to prevent thousands of cancers and deaths each year in the United States.

If only they all saw a recent letter to the editor and a separate article in Medscape in which vaccine expert Paul Offit sheds welcome light on the issue with a host of well-researched data.

“First of all,” Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, wrote in his letter, ”the HPV vaccine was studied for safety in 30,000 people for seven years before licensure.” After it was licensed, it has continued to be studied in more than a million people, according to Offit, “and has been found not to cause chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia.”

Beyond that, he wrote, “When those symptoms do occur, they occur at the same rate in both vaccinated and unvaccinated groups.”

Offit worries that concerns raised by television reports and via the Internet give parents a partial and scary scenario. Only about half of girls and even fewer boys are getting the vaccine.

Of course, the low vaccination rates are caused by various factors. Some parents worry that if they have their teens vaccinated for a sexually transmitted disease, they are sending a message that teenage sex is OK. There’s no evidence, though, that the vaccine in any way encourages teens to have sex earlier. Some parents simply don’t know; they figure that he age of vaccination is over by middle school and don’t realize that their teens still need some vaccines.

But for parents who do think the HPV vaccine somehow sets the immune system awry, Offit’s commentary going through the evidence should be alleviate any safety concerns.

Among the evidence he points to:

  • A California study of close to 190,000 women looked at 14 separate autoimmune conditions, including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Guillain-Barre syndrome and multiple sclerosis. There was no statistically significant difference in the occurrence of any of these health problems between the vaccinated and unvaccinated women.
  • An even larger study in Sweden looked at the occurrence of a wide range of autoimmune conditions in almost 1 million pre-teen and teenage girls. It also found no difference between the vaccinated and unvaccinated girls.
  • And just last year, another study of 1 million people found the same thing.

Fortunately, there are promising signs that the right messages might be getting through to families. Even though HPV immunization rates are low, they are rising, according to the National Immunization Survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Parents appear to be getting wise to the knowledge that the HPV vaccine is a safe and effective way to protect their children from certain kinds of cancer.

For more detailed information regarding the safety of the HPV vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s page on HPV vaccine safety.  



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