Does the HPV Vaccine Cause Ovarian Failure?

Teen girl getting HPV vaccine
BURGER/PHANIE/Getty Images

If social media posts about the HPV vaccine have made you nervous, you're not alone. Despite its ability to protect against several types of the cancer-causing virus, uptake on the vaccine lags behind other shots given to preteens.

While the reasons families choose to opt out of the HPV vaccine vary, some express concern over its safety—often citing stories seen online claiming the vaccine causes, among other things, ovarian failure in young women.

Does the HPV Vaccine Cause Ovarian Failure?

It doesn't look like it. During clinical trials prior to the vaccine being released into the market, there were no reports of ovarian failure or similar ailments, and investigations of reports from those who received the vaccine after it was approved didn't show a link either.

In fact, studies done both before and after the HPV vaccine was released indicate that it is just as safe as other vaccines given at the same age, including those against meningitis or pertussis. For the vast majority of adolescents, the worst side effect experienced will be a sore arm, headache, or fainting—all of which is fairly standard for vaccines given to adolescents. A tiny number of individuals can have a severe allergic reaction and go into anaphylaxis, but that is extremely rare.

Correlation vs. Causation

So what about those posts you've been seeing on your newsfeed?

While a very small number of cases of ovarian failure and other serious events have been reported following HPV vaccine, researchers investigating the reports haven't been able to find any reason to believe they were actually caused by the vaccine.

The distinction between having a relationship with the vaccine—correlation—and actually being caused by it—causation—is an important one.

Unfortunately, bad things happen all the time for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes, they really are just a coincidence.

That's why it's so critical for researchers to examine these claims through large-scale, scientific studies to see whether those who got the vaccine were any more likely to have harmful events happen than those who didn't. And in the case of the HPV vaccine, these studies—some looking at hundreds of thousands of people—haven't found any reason for you to be concerned.

It should be noted that these are different than studies done by the manufacturer, and package inserts for the vaccine don't reflect them. Package inserts are required by law and include everything that happened during clinical trials—even if they had nothing to do with the vaccine.

How Are Vaccines Tested for Safety?

Before a vaccine is ever allowed to be sold in the United States, it first has to go through a series of tests to demonstrate that it is safe and effective. During these pre-licensure clinical trials, the vaccine is tested in thousands of people and researchers carefully look at any differences between those who received the vaccine and those who didn't. If, and only if, the vaccine is shown to have strong benefits and minimal risks, it can be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the United States.

Getting to this point can take years, and many vaccine candidates never make it that far.

Once a vaccine has been released into the market and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) makes recommendations on who should receive it, researchers continue to verify that the vaccine is safe. Through systems like the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System and the Vaccine Safety Data Link, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can collect and analyze information on bad things that happen after vaccination to see if there's any reason to believe it was a result of the vaccine.

In the case of the HPV vaccine, thousands of people were included in the pre-licensure trials, and studies since have looked at hundreds of thousands of recipients in several countries, including the United States. Research continues to show that the HPV vaccine is overwhelmingly safe and effective at reducing cancer-causing HPV.

HPV and Cancer

Roughly nine in 10 people in the United States will get HPV at least once in their lives. While most will clear it without even realizing they had it, others will go on to develop cancer—and there's no way to know beforehand who will get cancer from HPV and who won't.

Cervical cancer is the most well known, but HPV can cause at least six different kinds of cancer in both men and women, including anal, penile, vaginal, vulvar, and head and neck cancers. In fact, HPV is believed to be linked to 5 percent of all cancers worldwide, and vaccination protects against the virus subtypes most likely to lead to them.

If you're worried about impacting your child's ability to have kids later in life, the HPV vaccine will help protect that ability—not harm it—as cervical cancer treatment can sometimes limit a woman's ability to get pregnant or have a safe birth.

Who Should Get the HPV Vaccine?

The HPV vaccine is recommended for all preteens—boys and girls—in the United States at age 11 or 12, though it can be given at any point between ages 9 and 26.

Early adolescence is the best time to get vaccinated for several reasons:

  • Because the vaccine can only protect against types the body hasn't encountered yet, it's best to finish the series before even thinking about becoming sexually active.
  • Adolescents are already receiving vaccines against meningitis and pertussis, so it makes sense to give the HPV vaccine at the same time.
  • The vaccine produces a stronger immune response at that age, compared to older ages.

The vaccine is administered in two or three doses, depending on when you start the series. Younger adolescents need only two doses, while those who wait until later in their teen years to start the series will need to get three.

A Word From Verywell 

If you or anyone in your life has gone through cancer treatment, you know how difficult that experience can be. Studies have shown the HPV vaccine is very safe, and it can protect your children from getting preventable cancers.  

Sources: 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases. Hamborsky J, Kroger A, Wolfe S, eds. 13th ed. Washington D.C. Public Health Foundation, 2015.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frequently Asked Questions about HPV Vaccine Safety. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Human Papillomavirus Vaccine Safety.

Markowitz LE, Dunne EF, Saraiya M. Human Papillomavirus Vaccination: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2014;63(RR05):1–30.

Meites E, Kempe A, Markowitz LE. Use of a 2-Dose Schedule for Human Papillomavirus Vaccination — Updated Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2016;65:1405–1408. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6549a5

Continue Reading