The thorny question weighs heavily on some parents' minds: If their daughters get the human papilloma virus vaccine for protection against cervical cancer, will it cause them to be more sexually active?
The short answer: No.
A study published online this week in the journal Pediatrics found no differences in birth control counseling, pregnancies or sexually trasmitted diseases among girls who did or did not get vaccine.
The roots of the controversy go back to 2006 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first recommended the new vaccine for girls beginning at ages 11 to 12.
Parents and others protested that girls who were vaccinated would then become promiscuous. That concern stems partly from the mistaken belief that the vaccine protects against other sexually transmitted infections besides HPV; it does not.
"Other research studies have found [vaccinated] girls didn't change their [sexual] behaviors," lead author Robert Bednarczyk, a clinical investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research Southeast, Atlanta, told TakePart.
Yet, he says, ''Parents were still concerned."
Those previous studies were based on self-reported behavior. So, Bednarczyk and his team decided to look at the question from a different--and more objective--angle.
They evaluated medical records, tracking whether the girls had been tested for STDs or diagnosed with one, whether they had pregnancy testing or got pregnant, and whether they got birth control counseling. These are all factors related to and reflecting sexual activity, Bednarczyk says.
The researchers looked at data on nearly 1,400 girls ages 11 to 12, who were members of the Kaiser Permanente health plan in Georgia during 2006 and 2007.
Of the total number, 493 girls received at least one of three doses of an HPV vaccine during the study period (the vaccine studied was Gardasil, which immunizes against four types of HPV). The other 905 received other vaccines, but not HPV. The girls were followed for up to three years.
No differences were found in the outcomes studied between the two groups. About 10 percent of the girls in each group exhibted one or more of the behaviors that the researchers tracked.
Bottom line? "The vaccine is safe, effective and not associated with increased sexual activity," he says.
Despite the recommendation from the CDC, use of the vaccine has been slow to catch on, according to the researchers. By 2010, fewer than half of the girls eligible for the vaccine had received even one dose.
More than 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer are expected to be diagnosed this year, according to the American Cancer Society, and more than 4,000 women will die of it.
A study released earlier this month found that despite fears about serious side effects to the HPV vaccine, it is safe overall, with only minor reactions such as fainting and mild skin infections.
Have you debated about getting your son or daughter the HPV vaccine? Let us know in the comments.
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Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles journalist who writes about health. She doesn't believe inmiracle cures, but continues to hope someone will discover a way for joggers to maintain their pace.