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HPV vaccine could deter safe sex, study finds

Megan Burrows of Kitchener, Ont., gets the HPV shot at school on September 13, 2007.

GEOFF ROBINS/geoff robins The Globe and Mail

A growing number of adolescent girls and young women are receiving the human papillomavirus vaccine, but it appears public-health campaigns encouraging people to get the shot may have some unintended consequences.

U.S. researchers have found that some girls who receive the HPV vaccine, which guards against certain strains of a virus that could lead to cervical cancer, believe they are less at risk for other sexually transmitted infections, leading to fears they may engage in risky behaviours.

The good news is that most girls receiving the HPV vaccine for the first time believed they were still at risk for other STIs and that it is important to practise safer sex, researchers reported in a study published this week in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine journal.

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But nearly one-quarter, or 23.6 per cent of girls surveyed, perceived their risk of contracting STIs to be lower following HPV vaccination. At the same time, 3.8 per cent of girls involved in the study said the shot meant they didn't need to be concerned about safer sex practices.

The misconceptions about the protections offered by the HPV vaccine are worrying, according to the authors of the study, and demonstrate a need for better education about the benefits and limits of the shot.

"Clinicians discussing HPV vaccination with girls and their mothers may need to emphasize the limitations of the vaccine and to specifically address that the vaccine does not prevent other STIs," the authors wrote in the study. "Further studies are needed to examine the association between risk perceptions after HPV vaccination and future sexual behavior." serves a low-income population, "possibly limiting the generalizability of the results," the study notes. And the study didn't follow the participants for any length of time, meaning no conclusions can be drawn about their long-term sexual behaviours.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, and the vaccine prevents infection with the strains that cause about 70 per cent of cases of cervical cancer. The vaccine is also approved to prevent infections that could lead to genital warts and anal cancer, while growing research suggests HPV infections may play a significant role in the development of other types of cancer.

In Canada, most parts of the country have set up programs to deliver the vaccine to girls, but there is increasing pressure for boys to be included in the program, as they can carry and pass on the virus as well as suffer serious health problems as a result of infection.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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