A new study in Pediatrics has found that young women who are vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV) do not participate in riskier sexual behavior as a result. HPV is the most common STI in the United States and the leading cause of cervical cancer. These findings show, again, that providing young people with sexual and reproductive health information and services is not linked to riskier sexual behavior.
Strong evidence also suggests that comprehensive sex education that encourages young people to wait to initiate sex while also providing them with accurate and age-appropriate information about contraception has a positive impact. Sex education programs have shown to help adolescents withstand pressure to have sex too soon and have healthy, responsibly, and mutually protective relationships when they do decide to become sexually-active.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccinating girls and boys, aged 11-12, for HPV. Last year, the CDC announced that HPV vaccination has led to a 56% decrease in the number of 14-19-year-old young women infected with the virus. But, despite the vaccine’s proven effectiveness, uptake is low. CDC data in 2010 showed that only 32% of young women aged 13-17 had been vaccinated.
One reason for the low uptake is unfounded opposition to the HPV vaccine and its inclusion in school-based programs. When the vaccine was introduced in 2006, opponents argued that it would promote teenage promiscuity and undermine abstinence efforts. However, reasearch done by the Guttmacher Institute shows that sexual activity among the youngest adolescent has been and continues to be rare. Virginia and Washington, DC require the HPV vaccine for school attendance, but both allow parents to opt-out.
The slow uptake of the vaccine is cause for concern. Not only does that vaccine protect against cervical and other cancers, but it also has the potention to reduce the huge current disparities in HPV infection and HPV-related deathers. In 2007, CDC data showed that Hispanic women had the highest rate of cervical cancer - 53% greater than the rate for white women. Black women had a 36% higher rate than white women. Black women were also the most likely to die from the disease with a mortality rate twice that of white women. Hispanic women had a mortality rate 35% higher than that of white women.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) may help to increase HPV vaccination rates by expanding health insurance coverage for millions of Americans. The ACA guarantees coverage without cost-sharing of the expensive HPV vaccine and expands Medicaid to covers the HPV vaccine under most circumstances.