The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine has been in the news a lot lately over the past 12 months. From Minnesota Republican Senator Michelle Bachmann claiming that it causes mental retardation in young girls (which isn't true), to the vaccine being marketed to boys, to a newly released CDC study that refutes the notion that the vaccine encourages promiscuity in young girls (a serious fear for many parents across the country). The CDC found that girls aged 15 to 19 who are vaccinated against HPV are no more likely to be sexually active.
Now this week, a report in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine suggests that young girls who have received the HPV vaccine may be forgoing condoms, believing that they don't need them any more. The study, picked up by MSNBC, indicated that there needs to be better communication between doctors, parents and young girls explaining what the vaccine does and doesn’t do: It protects against strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer. One version of the vaccine, Gardasil, also protects against some strains of the virus that cause genital warts. But the vaccine does not prevent STIs such as syphilis, gonorrhea or HIV, which causes AIDS.
MSNBC further reported:
For the study, Dr. Tanya Kowalczyk Mullins of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and colleagues surveyed 339 girls aged 13 to 21 about their perceptions of risk after their first HPV vaccination. Several mothers also took part.
Overall, most adolescent girls said they believed it was important to practice safe sexual behaviors after getting the shot. But a small group of girls — 23.6 percent — believed they were less at risk for getting sexually transmitted diseases after getting the vaccine.
Factors associated with this view included having less information about the vaccine and about HPV infections, less concern about contracting HPV and lack of condom use at last sexual intercourse with a male partner.
Researchers are also clear: The young girls in this study were surveyed from one clinic that serves a low-income community and that these findings may not be applicable for other populations.
Now, before everyone freaks out about the HPV vaccine, 23.6 percent isn't the majority, it's a small slice of the young girls who took part in the study. So why is the media blowing it up with misleading headlines?
Margaret Hartmann, from Jezebel, a website for women, believes that these headlines play into people's need to moralize sex and young people, but she finds what's most alarming is the knowledge gap about the HPV vaccine. She writes:
It's concerning that so many girls in the study misunderstood the function of the vaccine, but the researchers don't suggest that should dissuade anyone from being vaccinated. Their point is that doctors need to make sure that parents and their daughters thoroughly understand what the shot does and does not do. Being vaccinated isn't putting girls in danger, but not talking openly and accurately about sexual health definitely is.
What I also find interesting is how much responsibility is placed on the young woman for condom use in her relationships with men, when many studies have shown that there are serious power barriers to demanding condom use in relationships, especially when the male partner is older than the young girl or if they are in an abusive relationship.
While focusing on and educating young girls about safer sex is crucial, the young men cannot be left out of the equation.
To learn more about HPV click here.
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