In the last post, we learned about the Human Papilloma Virus: what it is; the different strains; which ones are sexually transmitted and which ones can lead to serious health risks like cervical cancer. If you haven’t had a chance to read it you can get caught up here.
In this post, I want to address some questions that came up in a recent discussion I was having with some folks online about HPV vaccines. If you’d prefer watching info, rather than reading, I’ve got the video version right here:
The conversation I had online led to some interesting questions/concerns. Essentially, some folks were wondering:
- Why does the medical community seem to ride so hard for vaccines like Gardasil Cervarix
- If medical scientists care so much about patient health, why haven’t they developed a cure yet?
- Is the HPV vaccine a ploy so pharmaceutical companies can sell more drugs?
I think asking questions and thinking critically is good practice, particularly when we’re making decisions about medical options and our sexual health. So let’s address these questions using the Values/Facts/Myths framework. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, it’s three simple guidelines I often suggest to help people express their views about sexual issues clearly and effectively:
- Own your values
- State the facts
- Avoid myths
Before I dive in, I would like to remind folks that I’m the academic type of doctor, not a physician. But I did want all the information in this post to be accurate, so I did consult with a medical doctor on this post – the wonderful Dr. Jeff Eisen. He works at Victoria General and Royal Jubilee Hospitals in Victoria, BC. He also happens to be my brother-in-law. Thanks, bro!
Vaccines: my values
My personal values definitely come into play when I’m making decisions about getting vaccinated, or having my kid vaccinated. I want to be clear about my own beliefs around this topic, so you have a sense of where I’m coming from.
I feel a responsibility to take care of my own health and my family’s health as best I can; beyond that I believe I have a responsibility in supporting community health.
I have faith in the evidence that the scientific and medical communities have offered in regards to vaccines and protection they offer, particularly when it comes mass or “herd” immunity. I trust my doctors. I also trust information from organizations like Health Canada, The Centers For Disease Control and The World Health Organization, who all promote vaccination as an effective way of preventing the spread of infection.
These values are part of the reason that I choose to get vaccinate and why I have my child vaccinated.
That having been said, I also value personal choice. I’m not going to tell you what to do with your body or how to manage your family’s health. Those are decisions that you have to make for yourself. But I will share some of the facts that have influenced my beliefs and choices when it comes to vaccines.
Vaccines: the facts
So why do doctors’ recommend vaccines for HPV? Why don’t they just cure it?
The reason that medical science hasn’t introduced a cure for Human Papilloma Virus is because it’s a virus. Viruses are microorganisms that work by sneaking inside our of cells and basically taking over the controls, like a little hijacker. You may already know that human cells divide and replicate. Viruses get into the cell and incorporate their own DNA into a human cell’s DNA so that when the cell replicates itself, it also replicates the virus’ proteins.
Our bodies have this awesome thing called the immune system. The immune system works in several ways, that are dope and fascinating (sadly, I don’t have the expertise to explain it all) but basically, when our bodies detect a virus, the immune system gears up to fight the infection.
If you did read the last post about HPV, you might remember that often our bodies can clear an HPV infection all by itself. That’s because of the immune system.
So, the immune system kicks ass. But it also needs time to ramp up its attack to kill a new virus. In some cases, by the time our immune system realizes we’ve been infected, the virus is already so widespread that it’s difficult for the immune system to destroy all the infected cells without also damaging our bodies. The consequences can be serious, or even fatal, such as cases where HPV infects the cervix and leads to cervical cancer.
Once our immune system encounters and fights a virus, it creates memory cells, called B cells. The B cells float around in our body and if a virus returns, the B cells bind to the virus, they start rapidly churning out antibodies to go kill it.
A vaccine (also called an immunization) kind of pre-infects the body and helps the immune system to recognize that virus. That way if a virus like HPV enters our body, our immune system says, “I’ve seen you before, you’re not supposed to be in here,” and quickly does its virus-fighting thing.
Vaccine: the myths
Finally, I want to address a few myths about HPV vaccines. As I mentioned earlier, some folks assume that pharmaceutical companies develop vaccines because they’re more profitable than cures. After all, we can cure infections like Chlamydia and Gonorrhea, so why not HPV?
Chlamydia and Gonorrhea can be cured because they’re bacterial infections. Bacteria are separate life forms that invade our bodies. Antibiotics can cure bacterial infections because when bacterial cells enter our bodies, they are distinct from our than human cells. It’s relatively easy for the medication to recognize and target the infection without affecting other parts of our biology. Meanwhile, because viruses like HPV get inside our cells and become part of our DNA, preventing viral infections like HPV requires a completely different approach than treating Chlamydia and Gonorrhea.
I’ve also talked to some folks who worry that there’s a risk of contracting HPV from the vaccine. HPV vaccines don’t contain live virus. They contain surface proteins which help the immune system recognize HPV if it enters the body. When you get the HPV vaccine, you’re not actually being infected with the virus.
The lack of a full-on cure for HPV and other viral infections isn’t evidence of a pharmaceutical conspiracy. It is evidence that viruses are complex and our bodies are complex. Scientists and doctors aren’t magicians. Curing viruses is a really tricky problem and medical science hasn’t found the solution yet.