Study shows no link between HPV vaccine and increased sexual activity

Big news on the sexual health front: a new longitudinal study was published yesterday in JAMA showing that young women who have received the HPV vaccine are no more likely to contract other STIs than unvaccinated women. While it is never a good idea to make generalizations about anything based on one study, this particular one seems well-designed and will hopefully lead to further study on this question. 'The Public Vaccinator' by Lance Calkin. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

HPV causes cervical, vaginal, and anal cancer and has been connected to various head and neck carcinomas. The vaccine protects against four strains of the virus most often responsible for those cancers. To be clear: the HPV vaccine is a vaccine against cancer. Despite the potential benefits, many parents (and non-parents) fear that by giving their child the HPV vaccine, their child will feel free to engage in risky sexual behavior.

Because of this fear, HPV vaccine uptake has been abysmal in the United States. Only about half of young women and one-third of young men have received the first dose of the HPV, and even fewer have completed the three-dose series.

Looking at a sample group of women over 208,000 women aged 12-18, researchers found that young women recieved the HPV vaccine were no more likely to seek treatment for chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, HIV/AIDS, or syphilis than were unvaccinated women. That’s right, there was no evidence that getting the HPV vaccine increased the likelihood of being diagnosed with an STI.

Using pharmacy claims, researchers also determined that vaccinated women were more likely to use oral contraceptives. 17.9% of vaccinated women across age ranges received a prescription for hormonal birth control while 9.2% of unvaccinated women did. This could be due to a few factors: young women who intended to engage in any sexual activity were more likely to request the vaccine as well as contraceptives; the HPV vaccine was suggested by doctor during appointments for acquiring contraceptives; or parent perception of daughters’ likehood of being sexually active influenced their decision to vaccinate or seek contraceptives for their child.

There are, of course, some limitations to this study. The researchers were only able to access records, so by design they missed undiagnosed STIs, may have included STI screenings rather than diagnoses, and omits the use of non-prescription contraceptives like condoms. Researchers were also unable to use records from anonymous clinics. Researchers also could not acquire information about SES and motivations for receiving the vaccine. This study also does not look at young men in the same age range, which would give a more complete picture of how HPV vaccine impacts adolescent sexual activity.

The psychology of vaccine risk perception is fascinating. Beyond the concerns of “naturalness,” parents who are less inclined to vaccinate may feel more responsible for potential injury to their child if the injury is connected to a vaccine rather than to a disease that could have been prevented by that vaccine. A parent whose child has a seizure after the HPV vaccine may feel more responsible for that event than if the child contracts HPV. I wonder how the parents would feel if, after a decade, their child is diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer.

To an extent, I get it. I’m not a parent, but I do possess empathy and can imagine how frightening parenting must be. The world seems full of danger, and parents want to do everything in their power to keep their children safe. Sometimes not acting--not vaccinating--seems safer than risking the side effects of the vaccination or of the disease itself.

Fearing risky adolescent sexual activity also makes some sense to me. Most parents don’t want to see their child become a parent during their sophomore year of high school. Most parents don’t want their child to live with HIV or herpes.

But nearly everyone becomes sexually active at some point in their lives, and about 70% of people have their first sexual experience before age 19.  Half of sexually active men and women will have HPV. That means that means that when parents decide not to vaccinate their children, they allow their children to have a one-in-two chance of contracting HPV. And while most cases of HPV clear up on their own with no adverse effects, there are more than 33,000 cases of HPV-related cancer diagnosed each year in the United States.

No study can stand alone. We should not take the results of this study and make bold proclamations about young women’s behavior and sexual activity. I do believe, however, that this robust study provides some much-needed evidence that reducing young women’s risk of infection does not turn them into crazed sex machines making risky choices. I look forward to subsequent studies that can provide more evidence for parents to use to make informed choices.

Note: I know that women over age 18 don’t need parental permission in order to get the vaccine and may be more inclined to seek it out. But this study looked only at women under age 18, so I stuck to that age group as well.

Friday Five: heat, Bloomberg, Texas, heroin, ACA

Each Friday, I use five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week. Let’s all do the heat wave! Just in case you’ve ignored the Facebook status updates, tweets, and complaints from co-workers, I want to inform you that it is Very Hot Outside. Growing up in Florida gives a person a skewed sense of the appropriate level of summertime heat and humidity, but this week has been tough even for me. In all seriousness, the heat is severe and dangerous, especially because so many people in the affected areas (map) don’t have air conditioning. So follow the heat advisory instructions: stay inside, run that AC (if you have it), drink water, and check in on seniors—they’re especially susceptible to high temperatures. And remember, we’ll all look back fondly this week while we wait for snow plows in January.

Bloomberg’s at it again But this time, he just wants New Yorkers to bypass the elevator and take the stairs instead. Mayor Bloomberg signed an executive order on Wednesday that requires all government building to be laid out using “Active Design” principles in order to promote physical activity like taking the stairs. We often talk in public health about making the healthy choice the easy choice and changing the built environment to encourage physical fitness. Bloomberg’s latest move may spark an interest in healthier buildings. Could Active Design be the new LEED certification?

You haven’t heard the whole story about Texas This was a big week for abortion controversy in Texas, and there’s already extensive coverage of what happened, so here’s some news you may have missed:

  •  You can now purchase Rick Perry voodoo dolls (cultural appropriation isn’t just for Miley Cyrus)
  • Texas Democrat Rep. Harold Dutton introduced a bill that would ban all abortion legislation until the state abolishes the death penalty.
  • The pink running shoes Wendy Davis wore during her filibuster have over 280 positive reviews on Amazon, and not all of them extol the arch support.

What did I miss?

Heroin’s popularity is growing in Northern New England In New Hampshire, the number of fatal heroin overdoses jumped from just seven in 2003 to a surprising 40 in 2012. The increase has also been observed in Vermont, with a 40% increase in heroin addiction treatment, and Maine, which had three times the heroin overdoses in 2012 as in 2011. There are a few factors that may contribute to this growing problem: increased control over prescription painkillers, the relative cheapness of heroin compared to painkillers, and because heroin can be sold at a higher price in rural areas than in urban centers, distributors are incentivized to sell more. Heroin is now taking up most of drug enforcement agents’ time in the area. Controlling infectious diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C will be the next challenge for the area’s public health community.

Curious about what’s happening next with the ACA? Kaiser Family Foundation released a new ACA video starring its charming YouToons. This one, a follow up to 2010’s “Health Reform Meets Main Street,” explains how to “Get Ready for Obamacare.” (Interesting, the change in terminology over three years!) This easy to understand breakdown of the complicated law is accessible to all audiences. Anyone talking to the public should be emulating this kind of clear communication. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZkk6ueZt-U

Friday Five: sterilization, pain robot, brains, surgeons, Sharknado

Each Friday, I use five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week. Rural women are more likely to be sterilized

Tubal ligation, also known as sterilization or “getting your tubes tied,” is far more common among rural women as compared to urban women. Of rural women, 23% said they had been sterilized; urban women, 13%. There is only speculation about why this difference exists. Some of the theories floating around are: less access to other forms of birth control; piggybacking tubal ligation onto post-partum Medicaid coverage; lower educational level. Importantly, 39% of those rural women regret their decision. We should be asking why they didn’t choose a long-term, reversible birth control such as an IUD or an implant (like Implanon) instead.

Somewhat cute robot helps reduce kids’ pain and suffering during injections

As a needle phobic myself, I was very excited to learn that there’s an innovation in helping kids’ distress during shots. The robot not only talks to the child in order to distract him or her from the scary needle, but encourages exhalation during the injection to help with muscle relaxation (video here). There are two reasons why reducing pain and anxiety for children receiving immunizations is important: excessive worry can make other parts of the exam difficult, and in the future, an adult who had a bad medical experience as a child may be more likely to avoid care. These both have significant health implications. If this robot can help, I say let’s get one in every pediatrician’s office—and maybe in internist’s offices too, for ‘fraidy cats like me.

Brain pathways involved with learning and changing behavior charted

This week the NIH published a study identifying neural pathways associated with learning and changing behavior in mice. The nerves associated with the switch from moderate to compulsive drinking were found to also have a role in learning and decision making. Researchers hope that their insights will be helpful in understanding alcoholism and addiction. Learning more about why some people can use substances in moderation while others become addicted is crucial to improving mental and physical health. Hopefully, these findings will also apply for humans.

Surgery residents operate less often under new rules

Medical residents (doctors who are done with medical school and are completing their practical training) work notoriously long shifts and even longer workweeks. Restrictions created in 2011 limited shifts to 16 hours for first-year residents and 28 hours for the more advanced doctors and everyone’s week is limited to 80 hours. Surgical residents have in turn participated in fewer hours of surgery because of the limits on working hours. Many doctors are concerned that this will put the budding surgeons at risk for not gaining enough experience. There has to be a balance between allowing doctors to get enough rest while also learning enough to practice on one’s own—the question is, how

Kathleen Sebelius may in fact have a sense of humor

Twitter blew up last night with references to Sharknado, a horribly wonderful movie about a tornado that blew sharks into a city. (I don’t know how that works, I didn’t watch it!) Buzzfeed immediately wrote an article claiming “There is no Obamacare coverage for pre-existing Sharknado injuries.” Kathleen Sebelius replied: https://twitter.com/Sebelius/status/355766513334108160 Hey, an ACA joke!

I leave you this weekend with an excellent infographic explaining pretty much everything you need to know about gender, sexual orientation, and the like…The Genderbread Person!

Genderbread-Person

Friday Five: Sarah Murnaghan, Plan B, Arizona, wildfires, mindfulness

Each Friday, I use five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week. The triumph of Sarah Murnaghan

Follow up from two weeks ago: Sarah Murnaghan got new lungs! After a judge ruled that she must be added to the top of the adult transplant list, Sarah was matched with organs within days. The Murnaghan family will now step out of the public eye and, as Sarah’s mother says, they will be “focusing all of [their] attention on Sarah” as she recovers from surgery. Sarah is not the only one to benefit from her family’s perseverance—11 year old Javier Acosta was also added to the list. This judicial intervention will certainly inspire ethical debate about who can get which organs, and hopefully children’s lives will be valued as much as adults’.

 

Judge Korman: New hero of reproductive rights?

After the Obama administration finally dropped its appeal of Judge Edward Korman’s ruling that all products containing levonorgestrel be made available over the counter, the administration decided to make available only Plan B One Step (containing just one pill rather than two). Korman is not happy about this. Plan B One Step is manufactured by Teva, and if it is the only emergency contraceptive authorized to be sold over the counter, Teva will be able to set its price and have no competition. Korman argues this unduly burdens low-income women and that “it is the plaintiffs, rather than Teva, who are responsible for the outcome of this case, and it is they, and the women who benefited from their efforts, who deserve to be rewarded.” Korman also makes it clear that if the FDA or Teva drag their feet on getting Plan B One Step to the drugstore shelves, they should expect to be sued again.

 

Arizona finally decides to expand Medicaid

Despite her deep opposition to the Affordable Care Act, Governor Jan Brewer now accepts that the ACA is here to stay and that Arizona should get in on the billions of dollars available to the state. Her website even touts the Medicaid expansion as “the conservative choice for Arizona.” Imagine that: after realizing that “uninsured Arizonans get sick just like the rest of us” (because uninsured people are markedly different from the insured, of course) providing them with Medicaid would help reduce the rates paid by the insured! Brewer even denies the state is participating in “ObamaCare” by crediting former (Republican) Governor Fife Symington with coming up with the idea of the expansion in the 1990s. I’m pleased that 57,000 additional Arizonans will have access to Medicaid, but Brewer can obviously see the advantages of the expansion and yet spent months rabidly fighting the ACA…what a hypocrite.

 

Wildfires? Denver Post has us covered

Multiple wildfires in Colorado are causing serious problems for the state, and the Denver Post is taking care of business when it comes to covering the fires. It’s providing maps of the perimeters of each fire, the properties damaged, and a map of all fires across the country. There are chilling before-and-after photos of neighborhoods turned to ashes. The Denver Post is doing an excellent job of keeping people informed, spotlighting the firefighters, and reminding residents of preparedness procedures without being alarmist. With two people killed and hundreds of homes burned down, the fires are a significant natural disaster, and the Denver Post will keep us all informed.

 

Mindfulness classes in high school

Central Bucks High School East will add a new subject to its curriculum: mindfulness. Using techniques from Learning to BREATHE, the school hopes to teach students to regulate their emotions, manage stress, and strengthen their ability to focus. Central Bucks East hopes the mindfulness training will help high-achieving students feel less stressed about AP classes, applying for college, and taking the SAT while the training will also be taught in a program designed for students to learn how to live independently. Acknowledging that stress hurts students (whether they are in classes about healthy interpersonal relationships or European History) shows that Central Bucks East is trying to see its students as whole people. I’m eager to see this program evaluated—will mindfulness change test scores or graduation rates?

 

Start the weekend off right with the evolution of Daft Punk and Pharrell's new song Get Lucky as it would have sounded if it was made in the past.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3r3BOZ6QQtU