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Is the Gardasil vaccination reliable?

Asked by Zelia, Corona, California

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Is Gardasil vaccination reliable? I've heard plenty of ugly things about this vaccination. I have a 17-year-old daughter and her doctor recommends that she get this vaccine. I am very confused because of the negative and positive information. Would you be able to clarify?

Expert Bio Picture

Living Well Expert Dr. Jennifer Shu Pediatrician,
Children's Medical Group

Expert answer

Thank you for your question. I'm glad you're trying to get as much information as possible about this vaccine, which is approved for females between the ages of 9 and 26 years (recommended around the 11- or 12-year-old checkup) and is currently the only one available that works to prevent HPV (human papillomavirus) infections. HPV is typically transmitted by sexual contact and can cause genital warts as well as cervical cancer. In fact, 20 million Americans currently have HPV. About 12,000 women get an HPV diagnosis, and 4,000 will die each year from cervical cancer caused by HPV. There are 40 different types of HPV, which are passed through sexual contact and will infect 50 to 75 percent of all sexually active people over their lifetime, although most don't ever know they have it.

The Gardasil vaccine has HPV components that protect against virus types that cause 70 percent of cervical cancer and 90 percent of genital warts. It contains purified viruslike particles from the proteins of four different strains (types 6, 11, 16 and 18) but does not contain live or killed virus, and so cannot cause an infection itself. After several years of ongoing research, the vaccine appears to be very safe and is between 95 and 100 percenet effective against the four included HPV types.

The most common side effect of the vaccine is that it can cause significant soreness in the arm after the injection, which is not unexpected from some vaccines. The adverse events that have been reported generally have not been serious. Specifically, some patients faint shortly after the dose is given. Because of this, it is routine practice to stay in the doctor's office for observation for about 15 minutes after receiving the shot.

Serious adverse effects such as blood clots and a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome are much less common and have not shown increased rates in patients receiving vaccine over that of the general population.

Further research is currently being done on HPV vaccines that may be given to males as well as to women over the age of 26. Stay tuned as new information becomes available.

My colleague Dr. Jill Grimes, a family physician in Austin, Texas, reminds people in her book "Seductive Delusions: How Everyday People Catch STDs" that HPV can transmitted by intimate skin-to-skin contact, meaning that you don't even need to have sexual intercourse to get this infection. As a pediatrician and a mother, this is what I find most worrisome, as adolescents may feel immune to STDs if they are not having intercourse when in fact they are actually still at risk from close personal contact.

I hope you will talk with your daughter's physician about any questions you may have about this and other vaccines. I wish you the best of luck!

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