The Checkup On Shots: Vaccine Updates, Facts And Fictions

Somehow, over the last few years, one of modern medicine’s greatest achievements has turned into one of modern American parents’ most fraught subjects.

In this episode of The Checkup, our podcast on Slate, we offer Shots: Vaccine Facts And Fictions, in which we attempt to have a rational, fact-based discussion about some of the vaccines you may encounter in the immediate future: the flu vaccine and, if you have pre-adolescent children, the HPV vaccine.

(To listen to The Checkup now, click on the arrow above; to download and listen later, press Download; and to get it through iTunes click here.)

This year’s flu vaccines offer consumers more choices than ever: there’s a nasal version, a quadrivalent (four-strain) option, a “short-needle” option and an egg-free vaccine for people with allergies, among others. And even though it still feels like summer in some parts of the country, doctors are urging people to get their flu shots early.

The HPV vaccine was introduced seven years ago but, according to the CDC, only about half of girls are getting one or more doses, and only about one-third are getting the full three-dose course. This despite word from public health officials that it’s highly effective for preventing HPV — the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. and a principal cause of cervical cancer — and so far, pretty safe. (It’s recommended for boys as well as girls, both because boys can spread HPV and because there’s a notable rise in HPV-related cancers in older men. See: Michael Douglas and oral sex. )

Doctors say a variety of obstacles stand in the way of more widespread use of the HPV vaccine. There remains the stigma of a vaccine for a sexually transmitted infection.  Also, when you’re talking about an 11-year-old,  preventing cervical cancer may seem less urgent than, say, preventing measles. Finally, there’s a general sense of “vaccine fatigue” among parents bombarded with so many official recommendations and competing agendas.


For more info, check out this HPV fact sheet created by our intern, Rachel Bloom:


Readers, please let us know how you’re handling vaccines for your family this year. Anything we can learn from your experience?

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Mamacat

    As someone who lives with the ‘side effects’ of drugs given to my mother-and is old enough to remember the furor over Thalidomide deformities, I’m skeptical at best re: our present FDA and it’s various edicts. At present, there isn’t sufficient longitudinal study info to tell us what will become of our children years from now, so I”m ‘on the fence’, and making sure that he is hyper-educated re: Sexual Safety in the interim.


    It’s important to prevent HPV. But people doubts about the HPV Vaccine.

  • Katie Wright

    Yes we need a strong immunization program but we need safer vaccines and help for children who have devastating adverse reactions. I do not want one more child to have a seizure and stop speaking after receiving vaccines. If this had not happened to my child I might not believe this either. The CDC spends $100s of millions of vaccine development and promotion but $17 million on vaccine safety research. Our children deserve better.

  • MelodyRN

    When people refuse to immunize their family, they not only hurt themselves, but by decreasing herd immunity they leave vulnerable members of our communities unprotected from vaccine-preventable diseases. These diseases pose real threats to children who are unprotected by vaccines either due to age or immunocompromised medical conditions.

    In regards to the HPV vaccine, it’s amazing that science has developed a way to protect people from cancer. While condoms help to prevent transmission, they aren’t 100% effective. Researchers have shown HPV to be present on genital skin with no symptoms that might prompt diagnosis and treatment. That means HPV and HSV can be deposited on the condom’s outer surface from viral particles living on the scrotum, penile shaft not covered by the condom or vaginal/vulvar tissues.

    Hopefully the public is keen and science savvy enough to see through the misinformation that pops up on the internet and in comment sections. Vaccines work and save lives. Anyone who says else-wise is misinformed, uneducated or trying to sell you something.

  • Katie Wright

    Less than 3,000 women die of cervical cancer a year. This is absolutely tragic but almost all of those deaths could have been prevented with annual pap smears. Pap smears are critical because they alert women to the presence of all potential cancers, HPV being the least worrisome! The real at risk group are gay men with many, many partners. They should get this vaccine.

    HPV is THE most profitable vaccine in the USA. It costs almost $300! The side effects can be horrific. Visit and see the scores of young women whose lives have been needlessly ruined by Gardisil. Oh, and by the why if you do have an horrible reaction, you are on your own, you cannot sue the manufacturer. Vaccine court is ridiculous, less than 1% of those who sustained injuries are compensated. Vaccine court is not public, you cannot get a jury trial, there is no discovery and the decked is totally stacked in favor of the defendant. Oh and if you do defy all odds and win you must sign a gag order if you have hopes of receiving compensation in your lifetime.

    Gardisil does not protect against other more dangerous STDs, pregnancy or HIV.
    Condoms are safe, relatively inexpensive and do protect against against all of the above.

    All the stats cited above are culled from research done by the manufacturers of Gardisil. Let’s use some common sense here and and promote free an universal access to pap smears inside of dangerous vaccines.

    • RW2718

      Actually, what you see at that site is the handiwork of a notorious anti-vaxer, Norma Erickson. It’s a nut cake site that uses fear mongering and misinformation (as this writer does) to try to scare people away from protecting their children with the HPV vaccine.

    • William_Jamison

      The vaccine you’re so busy denigrating has been proven in numerous clinical studies to be both safe and effective for preventing multiple forms of cancer.

      These studies have been performed by highly-educated and highly-trained medical professionals.

      What is your educational and training background? I doubt very much that it’s comparable with theirs, so why do you think you’re qualified to criticize their work?

  • MotherOfBoys

    Why don’t we also talk about vaccinating boys against HPV so they don’t transmit the disease to women in the future? When I got him vaccinated, my 14 yr old son told his doctor, “I don’t want to give someone I love cancer”. My son’s explanation seems more compelling than limiting the reasons to the preventable cancers in males.

    It is an expensive vaccine, though. We changed our health insurance after the first vaccine, and we had to pay for the next two doses ourselves, as the new one did not cover administering this vaccine to boys. We never considered discontinuing the vaccinations.