The HPV Vaccine's Misguided Scare Tactics

Lately, it seems like whenever I turn on Hulu, I'm greeted with an ad for Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. As someone who cares a lot about reproductive health, this should make me happy. Except I just can't stand the ads.

Now, before I go any further, I'd like to make one thing explicitly clear: I am very pro-Gardasil. Very. I myself received the vaccine within a few months of its release; more importantly, I am—to use Gardasil's parlance—literally "one less." Shortly after I was vaccinated, I got involved with a partner who was later diagnosed with HPV. Because of Gardasil, I did not end up contracting the virus—something I am very, very grateful for.


But even my love of Gardasil, and my gratitude towards its makers, can't wash away the bad taste I'm left with whenever the ad above pops up on my computer screen. It's misleading, it relies on scare tactics, and it paints a pretty unrealistic picture of what happens to women who don't get vaccinated with Gardasil.

To understand my feelings, it helps to know a little bit about HPV and Gardasil. For starters: there are hundreds of different forms of the human papilloma virus (more commonly known as HPV), about forty of which effect the genitals. Some of those forty forms are completely harmless, clearing from the body relatively quickly with no long term problems; others are more serious, resulting in issues like genital warts, or—in the worst case scenario—cervical cancer. Gardasil—the HPV vaccine manufactured by Merck—protects women from contracting four of those forty strains of HPV: two that cause 90% of cases of genital warts, and two that cause 70% of cases of cervical cancer.

Granted, Gardasil is a huge boon to women everywhere, as it greatly reduces the chances of ever having to worry about having an abnormal pap smear. But it's worth noting that even before Gardasil, cervical cancer was still a highly preventable form of cancer. That annual pap smear you're encouraged to get? Yeah, it can be really annoying, but it's a hugely important step in the fight against cervical cancer.

See, unlike most cancers, cervical cancer is pretty slow growing—and with regular pap smears, it's incredibly likely that a doctor can catch it in its early, pre-cancerous state, when it's highly treatable (with a little help from your friend and mine, the colposcopy). Now, again, having pre-cancerous cells on your cervix and getting a colposcopy are in no way fun—but they're certainly not a death sentence.

Which brings me back to the ad in question. Let's review the scenario that we're given here: a (presumably) white, college-educated woman goes in for her annual pap smear; comes back with a diagnosis of cancer. Cue panic, statistical reminder that 11,000 American women a year get cervical cancer, and a plug for (where, happily, you can learn more about Gardasil and how to prevent yourself from getting into this situation).

So here are some of my problems with this ad: first of all, as detailed above, anyone who is getting regular, annual pap smears is highly unlikely to receive a diagnosis of cervical cancer. An abnormal pap? Sure. A recommendation for a colposcopy? Quite possibly. But, again: someone who is regularly getting their lady bits checked out would be very, very likely to be able to prevent cervical cancer, and have a happy ending.


Secondly: remember those 11,000 American women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year? Well, according to the American Cancer Society, most of them are not white. In fact, "cervical cancer occurs most often in Hispanic women; at a rate that is more than twice what is seen in non-Hispanic white women. African-American women develop this cancer about 50% more often than non-Hispanic white women." Why are women of color so disproportionately hit by cervical cancer? Presumably because—for a variety of reasons far too complicated to examine in this piece—women of color are less likely to get their annual pap smears.

(Oh, and if you need more proof about the effectiveness of pap smears in preventing cervical cancer, here's another quote from the American Cancer Society: "Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. Then, between 1955 and 1992, the cervical cancer death rate declined by 74%. The main reason for this change was the increased use of the Pap test." Also? That 11,000 number sure sounds scary...but pales in comparison to the 42,000 new cases of uterine cancer and 192,000 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in women in 2009.)


So what we have, ultimately, is a commercial that screams, "Hey you! Educated white lady! Get our vaccine or you will totes get scary cancer!"...something that is demonstrably not true, and little more than an upsetting scare tactic.

And what makes me the angriest, really, is that there are so many good reasons to get Gardasil that are completely ignored by this ad. You should get Gardasil because you want to greatly reduce your chances of developing unsightly warts on your genitals. You should get Gardasil because you want to greatly reduce the chances of hearing the words "abnormal pap" and "colposcopy" coming out of your doctor's mouth. You should get Gardasil because you want to greatly reduce your chances of having to go through a nasty, painful colposcopy. (Although it's important to note that even if you do get Gardasil, there's still a slim chance of contracting HPV: remember, Gardasil only protects against the four strands that cause the majority of problems, not all of them. So don't skip that pap smear just cause you got your shots!)


As a former youth educator, one who worked with adolescents who made very bad choices with regards to their sexual health, I can understand the powerful appeal of the scare tactic. I can understand what it's like to want to frighten people into making the right choices, because, hey—the ends justify the means, right? But as an educated, rational woman, I chafe at the reality of being subjected to these tactics—at being treated as though I'm too stupid to recognize the value of Gardasil on its own, and won't see its benefits unless I'm blasted with the dreaded C-word.

Please, Merck. Your product is good enough on its own. Stop using these unlikely, horror story scenarios, and give women the straight facts—and the real stories they need to know to understand the value of Gardasil.

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I also hate those commercials, primarily because they put all the emphasis on cervical cancer, which is of course a terrible disease, but as Lux said, it's rare and highly detectable and treatable. Why not mention the fact that you can avoid getting the highly contagious, incredibly common, very embarrassing genital warts? It just seems like poor marketing, particularly as they tend to market to teenagers—people who are incredibly unlikely to get an abnormal Pap result anytime soon, but very likely to get genital warts.