Does the HPV Vaccine Increase The Risk of Other STDs?

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HPV Vaccine. Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

One of the earliest, and most persistent, arguments used against the HPV vaccines has been that vaccinating young people against HPV might encourage them to have more sex or increase their risk of getting another STD. In many ways, the ways this fear has been expressed have seemed to be less about real concerns about safer sex and STDs and more about policing the sexuality of young people - particularly young women.

However, it is worth assessing whether there is any scientific justification for concern.

The answer, unsurprisingly, is an unqualified no.

HPV Vaccination Doesn't Increase STD Risk

From the beginning of the research into HPV vaccines, there has been no evidence that vaccinating young people against the virus is associated with significant changes in sexual activity. Realistically speaking, this shouldn't be a surprise. HPV has not been an STD that people have traditionally worried about*. In fact, the public only started to become aware of its association with cervical and other cancers when the first vaccine, Gardasil, hit the market. Therefore, there was no reason to suspect that vaccination would change sexual practices, except for the common, nebulous, and often disproven notion that talking about sex increases the likelihood that people will have it. If that is not true for the amount of discussion that takes place during sex education classes, and it isn't, it's very unlikely to be true for the small amount of discussion that accompanies most doctor's appointment.

However, that isn't evidence, per se. To truly convince people that HPV vaccination isn't associated with anything other than a decrease in HPV infections and related conditions, researchers have had to perform long-term studies to examine the effects of the vaccine on the people who receive it. Fortunately, a number of such studies have been done, and they've consistently found that HPV neither increases STD risk nor causes significant changes in the way that people have sex.

In fact, vaccination not only directly protects young people against HPV infections and their potential consequences, it may actually encourage better sexual health. Several studies have suggested that individuals who have received the HPV vaccine are better educated about risk and more proactive about positive health behaviors such as the Pap smear and other screenings. That could be confounded by the fact that parents who are willing to have "The Talk" may be the same parents who are more likely to get their teenagers vaccinated.  However, it could also be that the need for vaccination prompts teens and adults to start engaging in education about risk, and learning about risk is one of the first steps towards making smarter decisions about sex.

*It's worth noting here that not only hasn't HPV traditionally been a source of concern, it shouldn't be one. Most HPV simply isn't worth getting too upset about, since the vast majority of both high- and low- risk infections will go away on their own without causing any long-term complications. That's a good thing since HPV is pretty much ubiquitous, even though very few people are aware of the extent to which that is true, since there is no test for HPV in men and few doctors regularly test for HPV in young women.

Sources:

Bednarczyk RA. Human Papillomavirus Vaccine and Sexual Activity: How Do We Best Address Parent and Physician Concerns?. JAMA Intern Med. Published online February 09, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.7894.

Bowyer HL, Dodd RH, Marlow LA, Waller J. Association between human papillomavirus vaccine status and other cervical cancer risk factors. Vaccine. 2014 Jul 23;32(34):4310-6. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2014.06.011.

Coles VA, Patel AS, Allen FL, Keeping ST, Carroll SM. The association of human papillomavirus vaccination with sexual behaviours and human papillomavirus knowledge: a systematic review. Int J STD AIDS. 2014 Oct 8. pii: 0956462414554629.

Hansen CE, Credle M, Shapiro ED, Niccolai LM. "It All Depends": A Qualitative Study of Parents' Views of Human Papillomavirus Vaccine for their Adolescents at Ages 11-12 years. J Cancer Educ. 2015 Jan 20.

Jena AB, Goldman DP, Seabury SA. Incidence of Sexually Transmitted Infections After Human Papillomavirus Vaccination Among Adolescent Females. JAMA Intern Med. Published online February 09, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.7886.

Ruiz-Sternberg AM, Pinzón-Rondón ÁM. Risk perception and sexual behavior in HPV-vaccinated and unvaccinated young Colombian women. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2014 Sep;126(3):205-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ijgo.2014.03.033.

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