When the human papillomavirus vaccines became available in 2006, they were accompanied by all sorts of controversy. Although the vaccines proved to protect against strains of HPV that can cause cancers resulting from HPV infection (cervical cancer, as well as those of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus and throat), the recommendation that kids as young as 11 or 12 should be given a routine vaccination to prevent what can be the result of a sexually transmitted infection freaked people out.
The timing of the vaccine is vital since antibodies have a stronger response in younger people and it’s most effective to vaccinate before one is exposed to the virus. However, the CDC also recommends that adults get it up to age 26 for women and 21 for men. This includes men who have had or intend to have sex with other men, transgender folks and people with conditions that impact their immune systems, such as HIV.
While 40 percent of American teenagers are now getting the vaccine, there’s still some bad press out there about it having a negative impact on one’s fertility. Where is this false information coming from? Dr. Donnica Moore, a women’s health expert and physician educator, says it’s the result of “zombie lies,” which are referred to as such “because no matter how often they are killed, they always return.”
These lies are perpetuated by both the anti-vaccination movement and pseudoscience and have gained traction thanks to the internet.
“Because the HPV vaccine prevents an STI [sexually transmitted infection], it was ripe to attract extremists and alarmists who were concerned that the vaccine would therefore make teenage girls promiscuous,” says Moore.
She cites one conspiracy theory in particular claiming the vaccine leads to premature ovarian failure, otherwise known as early menopause (menopause that sets in before age 40) that was being disseminated throughout Africa as a means of population control.
In September 2017, a group of scientists at Boston University dug into the relationship between fertility and HPV. What they learned was that there were no adverse effects on either male or female fertility among folks who had been given the HPV vaccine, and in fact, women who had had the vaccine were just as likely to conceive as women who had not been vaccinated. “Our study should reassure those who are hesitant to vaccinate due to fertility concerns,” said Kathryn McInerney, the study’s lead author.
Not only is the HPV vaccine not linked to fertility issues, it can actually improve fertility in both men and women. A 2011 study revealed HPV can mess with semen quality, sperm mobility and even increase antisperm antibodies. A 2014 study indicated that since HPV is so prevalent among men ages 18 to 40, it might have a huge impact on infertility in both men and in couples (in other words, infertility isn’t always about women’s bodies).
For women, treatments for cervical dysplasia, abnormal cells that congregate in your uterus thanks to HPV, have been associated with preterm delivery. HPV can be a factor in failed IVF as well as miscarriages and, of course, if you need to have a hysterectomy due to cervical cancer, that’s obviously a blow to your fertility as well. And since getting the vaccine isn’t going to inhibit or endanger your fertility, but rather works to preserve it, there’s no reason not to get it and to make sure your kids get it too.
Not all strains of HPV lead to cancer, but those addressed by the HPV vaccine do. You should still be seeing your doctor regularly for Pap smears even if you are vaccinated. (In fact, even if you’ve had a partial hysterectomy, you should still get Pap smears.) The vaccine isn’t intended to replace a Pap or an annual visit and it doesn’t prevent all forms of HPV, just those that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and genital warts. That remaining 30 percent is a pretty good reason to get a regular Pap since you want to get out in front of anything abnormal. Paps are also especially important if you didn’t complete the full series of the vaccine, which for Gardasil is three shots over a six-month period, or if you weren’t aware you already had HPV when you started getting the vaccine, in which case it might end up being less effective.