Book Club: The HPV Vaccine Controversy

The HPV Vaccine Controversy: Sex, Cancer, God, and Politics: A Guide for Parents, Women, Men, and Teenagers
by Shobha S. Krishnan, M.D.

Praeger Publishers, 2008

The HPV vaccine, released in 2006, was ripe for controversy, at least in places like the United States. Here there is a strong anti-sex undercurrent from certain segments of society, and fears abound that a vaccine that protects against a common sexually transmitted disease — especially one whose symptoms disproportionately affect females — would encourage sexual promiscuity among our nation’s teenage girls. In addition, there is a segment of society that is deeply suspicious toward vaccines, a fear that is often fueled by misinformation or misunderstanding.


The HPV Vaccine Controversy is an excellent resource for anyone considering vaccination, as well as those who have already been exposed to human papillomavirus.


While Krishnan’s book is an invaluable guide for anyone considering the vaccine for themselves or their child, it covers much wider territory than just the vaccine and its attendant controversies. The first half of the book is devoted not to a discussion of vaccination but to a thorough and accessible description of female anatomy (although apparently her claim about the teenage cervix is controversial), the lifecycle and transmission of human papillomavirus (HPV), cancer screening techniques such as the Pap test, and the slow development of cancer caused by HPV infection. It also has good information on genital warts, which are caused by certain strains of HPV (such as HPV-6 and HPV-11) that often get overlooked in discussions of their cancer-causing cousins (such as HPV-16 and HPV-18). This makes the book an excellent resource for anyone who has had an abnormal Pap test and has questions — the detailed descriptions of the various cervical-cell abnormalities and the different stages of cervical cancer will assist the lay reader in making sense of her diagnosis. Continue reading

HPV Vaccines: Separating Fiction from Fact

Gardasil is one of two HPV vaccines. It protects against two cancer-causing strains of HPV and two wart-causing strains.

You’ve probably heard a lot about the HPV vaccine, which protects against the sexually transmitted pathogen human papillomavirus — which itself can lead to cancers of the cervix, anus, throat, and more. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about the vaccine, such as Michele Bachmann’s debunked claim that it causes mental retardation. But, even before Bachmann gave us her two cents, there have been plenty of falsehoods flying around about the HPV vaccine.

Myth: Vaccination against HPV will increase sexual promiscuity among vaccine recipients.

Fact: Studies show that this fear is unfounded.

A study published this month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine contradicts this claim. In a group of more than 4,000 young females, there was no significant difference between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated in terms of number of sexual partners or the age at which sexual activity began.


Together, HPV-16 and HPV-18 cause about 70 percent of cervical cancers.


Besides, the vast majority of teenagers who choose abstinence do so for reasons other than a fear of contracting HPV. Additionally, HPV is one of many sexually transmitted diseases (STDs); if fear of contracting an STD were the only factor in teenagers’ celibacy, a vaccine that protected against only one STD would not remove this fear.

(It might bear pointing out that when the HPV vaccine was approved for boys and men, fears about male promiscuity didn’t seem to run as rampant.)

Myth: Because the HPV vaccine only protects against two cancer-causing strains of HPV, it isn’t useful in cancer prevention.

Fact: The two cancer-causing strains of HPV that the vaccine protects against account for 70 percent of all cases of cervical cancer. Furthermore, Gardasil protects against two additional strains of HPV, which together are responsible for 90 percent of genital warts. Continue reading

Planned Parenthood Services for Men: We’ve Got You Covered

At Planned Parenthood, we’re passionate about women’s health, and indeed, our health care centers are well known for their top-notch services aimed at the female population. But not a lot of people associate Planned Parenthood with men’s health — despite the fact that we offer a wide range of services for men, ranging from those you expect (like condoms) to those you might not expect (like smoking cessation).


Planned Parenthood offers cancer screening and family-planning options for men, as well as an array of services that include cholesterol screening, diabetes screening, and even smoking cessation.


Sexually active people should be screened for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) — even if your partner has negative test results, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear, so you can’t rely on your significant other to provide your STD screening “by proxy.” Especially because so many STDs are asymptomatic, it’s better to get yourself tested. We can screen and treat for STDs, as well as offer preventive vaccines for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and human papillomavirus (HPV). Most people associate the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, with females, since HPV is behind 99 percent of cervical cancers. But males can benefit from Gardasil as well. Not only will they be protecting their partners, but they will also be protecting themselves from the viruses that can cause precancerous penile lesions as well as the majority of genital warts and anal cancers.

Men’s services also include life-saving cancer screening — we can check you out for prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, or testicular cancer. We can also evaluate penile lesions, which might lead to penile cancer if left untreated. These might not be the kind of check-ups anyone looks forward to, but they represent the kind of preventive health care that can save your life — or just your money — down the road. Continue reading

The Slow Journey from HPV Infection to Cervical Cancer

Healthy cervical cells as seen under a microscope. Image: National Cancer Institute

Healthy cervical cells as seen under a microscope. Image: National Cancer Institute

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. The biggest threat to cervical health is human papillomavirus, or HPV, a virus that is transmitted through a wide variety of sexual activities. If you haven’t yet been sexually active, the best thing you can do to protect cervical health (whether you have a cervix or not) is to be vaccinated against HPV. If you have been sexually active, the vaccine could still be effective, assuming you haven’t already been infected with the strains of HPV against which it protects. And, if you are, or have been, sexually active and have a cervix, it is important to be screened with regular Pap tests (also called Pap smears). When caught in its precancerous stages, cervical cancer can be avoided.


HPV may be tiny, but it packs a punch.


There are more than 100 strains of HPV, approximately 40 of which can be sexually transmitted; of these, 18 strains are thought to cause cancer. Chronic infections by cancer-causing HPV strains, such as HPV-16 and HPV-18 (which together are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers), can lead to the development of abnormal cells, which might eventually become cancerous.

In the United States, HPV is the most widespread sexually transmitted disease — 6 million Americans are infected with HPV annually, although most are asymptomatic and unaware they were infected. For most people, the infection clears up within 8 to 13 months, while for others, the infection can lurk undetected. If you are unlucky enough to develop a chronic HPV infection, then you are at increased risk for certain cancers — depending on the site of the infection, HPV can cause cancers of the cervix, anus, and other genitals, as well as the throat. Continue reading

At the Capitol, Women Are Watching

Activists gathered at the Arizona Capitol to send the message to state legislators: Women Are Watching.

The sky was blue and the T-shirts were pink on January 9, the opening day of the 2012 Arizona State Legislature in Phoenix. More than 350 pro-choice women and men gathered in the rose garden between the House and Senate buildings to make sure Arizona legislators got the message that “Women Are Watching” and we will all be keeping track of the legislation they are putting forward, which will affect women’s access to abortion, health care, and birth control.


The legislators couldn’t get to their offices without walking through our exuberant group and being made aware that pro-choice supporters were putting them on notice.


I joined the contingency of supporters who “got on the bus” in Tucson and rode up I-10 to lend our voices and presence to those gathering at the Arizona Capitol. When we arrived and made our way through the crowd to the check-in table, I was happy to see how many people had showed up. What made me feel so hopeful was the wide representation of people: women and men, boomers and seniors, college students, and people from across the spectrum of races and cultures. Pro-choice voters from Planned Parenthood Arizona, Arizona List (thank you for the bus ride!), NARAL Pro-Choice Arizona, National Organization for Women, Arizona Women’s Political Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, and Business and Professional Women of Arizona all joined their considerable forces.

On the check-in table there were buttons, stickers, brochures, and important information sheets that listed the names, legislative districts, and office phone numbers of legislators who need to be contacted by phone or email and told that we will hold them accountable for legislation that wages war on women. Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 1: Flu Shots

Image: National Institutes of Health

Welcome to the first installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a new series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog. In this series we will highlight Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl doesn’t know about.

If you’re like me, you’ve been scared to get your flu shot ever since seeing that Fox News story about the woman who developed a rare neurological disease after getting a standard flu shot. I’m not even going to link to it here because if you’ve already seen it you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t, you don’t want to. Trust me. Go look for it yourself if you want to see it so bad.


It’s not too late to get a flu shot.


Anyway, I hadn’t gotten one for years because I was afraid of being one in a million and contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare, paralyzing illness that causes fever, nerve damage, and muscle weakness. Obviously, as has been pointed out to me by parents, friends, and doctors, the chances of that happening are so small that they aren’t even worth worrying about. Risks from getting the flu, especially if you’re a child or senior, are much more definite. (Furthermore, a 2011 study found no link between GBS and the flu shot.)

Last year I got the flu, and it was so awful that in my fever-induced haze I vowed I would not let it happen again.

You can get a flu shot pretty much anywhere this time of year, including Walgreens, Fry’s, and Safeway. Even Planned Parenthood Arizona carries the flu shot now, and offers them for $20 to both walk-in clients and those who have made an appointment. Continue reading

A Spotlight on Folic Acid

A cup of cooked lentils contains 358 micrograms of folate.

In the late 1920s, the London School of Medicine for Women graduated a brilliant student named Lucy Wills. This newly minted physician embarked on a trip to Bombay to investigate reports of anemic female laborers whose condition seemed to be exacerbated by childbirth. Thinking the anemia could be a sign of a nutritional deficiency, she fed her patients Marmite, which at the time was a fad among British and Australian health nuts. It seemed to help, and because she didn’t know which chemicals in Marmite were responsible for her patients’ improvement, she called that unknown ingredient the Wills factor — which we now know is folic acid.


Prenatal folic-acid supplements are thought to prevent 50 to 75 percent of neural tube defects.


January 8 marked the start of Folic Acid Awareness Week. Folic acid is essential in cell division, so we need it in order to grow or simply to repair damaged tissues. It is especially important that anyone who might become pregnant consumes at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, as it can help prevent certain types of birth defects.

Neural tube defects, including anencephaly and spina bifida, occur in about 1 in 1,000 births, and can affect an embryo when it is just a few weeks old, often before pregnancy is even detected. Anencephaly is an especially tragic and usually fatal condition in which an embryo fails to develop parts of its brain or skull. The prognosis for spina bifida is better — some people with spina bifida are unable to walk, while other cases are so mild that they might never be diagnosed. Continue reading