Dispelling the Myths Around HPV Vaccines

Deep fakes, fake news, photoshop, generative AI as research tools, super-fast news cycles are only some of the ways that our world has evolved today. As digital technology becomes more accessible, misinformation and the use of propaganda has grown stronger with individuals wielding the power of information. This democratised use of and access to information has brought about a unique challenge in the healthcare sector as it relates to the spread of health information and awareness around key health issues.  

The Nigerian government in October 2023 launched a nationwide vaccination campaign against the HPV virus. It has become imperative on non-state actors to ensure that the efforts of the government and its partner institutions are not undermined by the lack of access to correct and verifiable information to the public or the proliferation of inaccurate information.

In this article, we shall attempt to dispel some of the most common myths around the Human papillomavirus (HPV) to ensure that you are well-informed.  

Why Is the HPV Vaccine So Important?  

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that can cause a variety of health problems, including genital warts, oral cancer, anal cancer, cancer of the penis, and cervical cancer in women. The virus can infect both men and women. HPV is arguably the most common sexually transmitted infection and affects many people, both men and women in their late teens and early adulthood, necessitating a well-executed nationwide response to the significant threat that the virus poses.  

A person who has been infected with HPV can live with the virus for years without having any health problems and they can transmit the infection to someone else making it hard to know who the first carrier is. Since there is no way to determine who would get health problems from an HPV infection, it is imperative that we take proactive measures to avoid potential serious health problems.    

In response to this critical healthcare issue to reduce the incidence of HPV infections and by extension cervical cancer in women, the Nigerian government in collaboration with Gavi, the World Health Organisation and the UNICEF have launched a free nationwide immunisation campaign to get young girls within the ages of 9 and 14 vaccinated against HPV types 16 and 18, the HPV strains that have been linked to about 70% of cases of cervical cancer.  

Myths around HPV Vaccine 

Many Nigerian cultures rely strongly on storytelling for preservation, so it is no surprise that we are a people strongly connected to stories. However, the downside to this is that we sometimes find stories where none exist; weaving conspiracy theories around the most natural things, especially when they involve the government.

Following the rollout of HPV vaccines across the country there has been a lot of conspiracy theories and misinformation around the vaccine, affecting the uptake in many communities. Here are some of them:  

HPV Vaccine Causes Infertility  

One of the stories that has been going round is that the HPV vaccine causes infertility and white people are trying to use it as a way to reduce African population. The HPV vaccine is very safe and there has been no study that conclusively shows an association between HPV vaccine and infertility. Like many other vaccines, a person who gets the HPV vaccines may experience side effects such as dizziness or fainting, nausea, pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site, fatigue, headache, muscle or joint pain, fever which often resolve on their own. Also, it is important to state that not getting vaccinated might increase the likelihood of infertility in situations where an infection leads to cancer.  

HPV Vaccine Makes Girls Promiscuous 

Another common myth is that HPV vaccines gives girls the license to become promiscuous. While it is true that the primary mode of contracting the virus is through sexual contact, HPV can also be contracted through non-sexual means such as skin-to-skin contact, skin-to-mucosa contact, and childbirth.  

Protecting girls from sexually transmitted infections does not encourage moral depravity. Women and young girls who have never had sex or who are committed to a single partner have been infected with the virus. There is also no evidence to suggest that the vaccine influences sexual behaviour in any way and getting girls vaccinated early is a public health measure to prevent serious health issues.  

HPV is not Common  

HPV prevalence is very high globally, making vaccination a priority. According to the Centre for Disease Control, HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections and nearly everyone who is sexually active will get it at some point in their lives if they do not get vaccinated. 

HPV Vaccine Does Not Provide Enough Protection 

Simply put, the HPV vaccine is one of the most effective vaccines ever developed. The vaccine can prevent up to 90% of HPV-related cancers from developing. Additionally, the vaccine is for a long period of time. A study following the progress of people who were given the vaccine for about twelve years without evidence of its effectiveness wearing off over time. Hence, while the vaccine is not 100% effective (nothing is), it remains the most effective way to protect yourself from HPV infections.   

HPV Vaccine Protects Only Girls  

The HPV vaccine protects both boys and girls. However, the current rollout of the vaccines by the federal government is targeted at teenage girls between 9 and 14. The vaccine can also be administered to people who fall within other demographic groups. Administration of the vaccine to both boys and girls can start from age nine and it is most effective when administered at ages 11 and 12. Older teens and adults up to age 26 can also get vaccinated.  

While the vaccine is not recommended for persons older than 26, anyone between the age of 27 and 45 who is not vaccinated can choose to get vaccinated after assessing the risks of new HPV infections with their doctor.  

In conclusion, the HPV vaccine is a safe and effective way of preventing more than 90% of HPV-related cancers hence, it is important we allow young girls take this opportunity to get vaccinated against future HPV infections. The vaccines are currently available for free in primary health centres in sixteen states across in the first phase of the roll out and will be available nationwide in the first quarter of the coming year.  

Bọ́ládalẹ́ Tèmítọ́pẹ́ Maryam (Amal🍒)

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