In 2006, the FDA approved a vaccine that protects against strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause most cervical and anal cancers as well as many throat, penile, and vaginal cancers. Fifteen years later, a U.K. study revealed that the vaccine had reduced cervical cancer among young women in the country by nearly 90 percent. But uptake of the vaccine wasn’t as successful everywhere—and misinformation is to blame.
The HPV vaccine’s introduction stirred up near-instant controversy. In the U.S., targeted anti-vaccine campaigns fueled widespread misinformation about the safety and necessity of the vaccine. As a result, the HPV vaccination rate in the U.S. is less than 60 percent, far lower than in other wealthy nations. In 2019, over 26 percent of American parents refused the vaccine due to safety concerns, up from only 5 percent in 2008.
As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, some anti-vaccine figures have seamlessly shifted their sights to the HPV vaccine as a target of misinformation. We’ve debunked some of the most common myths about the HPV vaccine below.
The HPV vaccine doesn’t cause cancer—it prevents it
Anti-vaccine advocates attempt to falsely link different vaccines to cancer, with no evidence to support their claims. In the case of the HPV vaccine, the myth is particularly egregious because the vaccine is one of only two vaccines that prevent cancer. (The other is the hepatitis B vaccine, which can prevent liver cancer.)
HPV causes 91 percent of cervical and anal cancers, 75 percent of vaginal cancers, 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers (a type of throat cancer), and over 60 percent of vulvar and penile cancers. HPV is an extremely common virus that nearly every sexually active person will be exposed to in their lifetime. Yet, 30 percent of Americans are unaware that the virus can cause cancer.
HPV-related cancer rates have dropped since the vaccine’s rollout
A more recent false claim about the HPV vaccine is that cervical and other HPV-related cancers have not decreased since the vaccine’s rollout in 2006. This claim is based on a misrepresentation of a UCLA study published in 2022 that found an increase in the diagnosis of late-stage cervical cancer.
The study did not assess total cervical cancer rates, which have decreased since the vaccine’s rollout, especially among young women. Research by the same group found that the rate of cervical cancer among women eligible to receive the HPV vaccine as teens decreased by 9.5 percent annually after the vaccine’s approval.
Notably, the rates of some HPV-related cancers have increased in recent years. However, that trend began before the HPV vaccine rollout and does not affect the age groups that received the HPV vaccine. In addition to the U.K. study, research in Sweden, the U.S., and Australia shows a decrease in infections and cervical cancer rates in girls vaccinated against HPV.
The HPV vaccine does not affect fertility
One of the most persistent and damaging false narratives about the HPV vaccine is the myth that it causes infertility. Although the vaccine is not the first to be falsely linked to infertility, the fact that HPV is directly linked to reproductive health lends the myth enough credibility to persist despite evidence contradicting it.
Adding to the misinformation is the now-retracted 2018 study that claimed birth rates had fallen among women in their 20s who had received the HPV vaccine. The study, which concluded that universal HPV vaccination would result in 2 million fewer pregnancies, was retracted due to “serious flaws” in its methodology and statistical analysis.
There’s no link between the HPV vaccine and increased or risky sexual activity
Some conservative and religious groups oppose HPV vaccination, not out of safety concerns but because they believe it encourages risky sexual behavior in teens and young adults. Some critics have even accused health professionals of sexualizing girls, encouraging teenage sex, and promoting unsafe sexual behavior if they encourage the vaccine. These arguments misunderstand that the HPV vaccine is most effective before exposure to the virus. Thus, vaccination is recommended in late childhood and early adolescence before exposure is likely.
Multiple studies, including an analysis of 20 earlier studies, found that HPV vaccination had no effect on teen sexual behavior. Vaccinated teens were not more sexually active, likely to test positive for sexually transmitted infections, or likely to engage in risky sexual behavior.
You can get the HPV vaccine even after you’re sexually active
Because HPV is primarily transmitted through sexual contact, most experts recommend vaccination before an individual is sexually active. However, that doesn’t mean that people who are already sexually active can’t receive the vaccine.
The HPV vaccine provides immunity to multiple viral strains, so even if you’ve been exposed to one, the vaccine can still protect you against others. Gardasil 9, the only HPV vaccine used in the U.S. since 2016, protects against nine HPV strains.
The HPV vaccine isn’t just for teen girls
Although the HPV vaccine is recommended for adolescents of any gender ages 11 to 12, anyone between the ages of 9 and 45 can receive it. Most people will be exposed to the virus at some point and will benefit from vaccination.
The vaccine is typically administered in two doses, six months apart. People who begin vaccination after age 15 should receive three doses, with at least four weeks between the first and second doses and five months between the first and third doses. People over the age of 26 will need to consult a doctor for the best vaccination schedule.
The HPV vaccine is very safe
The HPV vaccine, like all FDA-approved vaccines, went through rigorous safety testing, including clinical trials. HPV vaccine clinical trials included around 75,000 male and female participants.
In the 17 years since the vaccine’s approval, hundreds of millions of doses have been administered worldwide, and no serious safety concerns have been flagged. Despite this, parents report growing concerns about the vaccine’s safety.