Published November 2, 2011
A leading authority on human papilloma virus (HPV) says there is no evidence that the vaccine against it poses health risks.
Thomas Melendy, PhD, recommends that girls and boys receive the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, before they become sexually active.
Melendy and his colleagues are working to develop an antiviral drug against HPV infections and strategies that would kill HPV cancer cells while leaving normal cells alone.
In 2010, he won an award for best overall research presentation in basic sciences at the 26th International Papillomavirus Conference.
His work explained why HPV, unlike other DNA viruses, integrates so readily into the genome of human cells.
Human papillomaviruses have co-evolved with humans over millions of years. HPV infections are very common; almost everyone has one at some point in their lives.
Most infections create a small benign wart, which is generally resolved by our immune systems. Some HPV strains only infect the outer skin while others are sexually transmitted and only infect the genitalia or other mucosal surfaces.
They are among the most common. Virtually one in nine people in the U.S. has an active HPV sexually transmitted infection at any time.
Some require treatment; others may not be apparent and resolve on their own. It is only the rare HPV infection—one in thousands of cases—that develops into cancer.
Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer in women in the U.S. HPV also causes almost all other anogenital cancers and over half of all oral cancers.
This means that HPV causes more cancers than anything other than smoking.
Regular Pap smears help catch cervical cancer early, so it’s more treatable. Still, nearly one in three cases results in death in the U.S., and one out of two cases worldwide. That’s approximately 5,000 deaths a year in the U.S. and 232,000 worldwide.
Unlike most forms of cancer, cervical cancer often strikes early, killing women in the prime of their lives.
If given properly to all girls before they become sexually active, the HPV vaccine would prevent about two-thirds of cervical cancers.
Vaccinating boys as well as girls will also provide likely protection against other anogenital and oral cancers.
Since HPV is such a common sexually transmitted infection, and since even condoms are only partially effective at preventing HPV transmission, the vaccine series needs to be given before people first become sexually active.
This is not a “risky” vaccine. It has no mercury-containing chemicals—for which no danger has been proven—but some people, nevertheless, remain concerned.
There is no viral genetic material, so there is no danger of infecting anyone from the vaccination.
While there are apocryphal reports of serious health consequences to a few young girls, there is absolutely no evidence at this point that the vaccine caused the negative health consequences attributed to it.
To date, the number of cases that might have caused an unusual allergic response are so small—a handful—that the benefits of saving thousands of lives by the HPV vaccine far outweigh the risks for any individual.
We need better vaccines against HPV infection and better treatments for HPV-induced cancers.
HPV cancers are potentially far more amenable to cancer-specific treatments than are most cancers. Additional research funding in these areas could save thousands and thousands of lives every year.