Vaccinating children against HPV can prevent cancer

By Dr. Alberto Mendivil

Categories: Women's Health

The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is responsible for 17,000 cancers in women and 9,000 cancers in men every year. In the United States alone, over 4,000 women will die of the disease.

It's important to highlight that almost all of these dangerous, and sometimes fatal, cancers can be prevented with a vaccine.

Vaccination against known viruses is not a new concept. The use of vaccines in children in countries around the world have led to the near eradication of deadly childhood infections, such as polio, measles, rubella and Hepatitis B. The vaccine against four subtypes of HPV has been developed to reduce infection with the virus responsible for approximately 75% of HPV subtype known to cause cervical cancer (HPV 16 and 18) and 75% of HPV subtype known to cause genital warts (HPV 6 and 11).

While the vaccine has been used for over 10 years with an excellent safety profile, unfortunately, because HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, controversy shrouds the vaccine, leading to misinformation and misguided notions about the purpose of the inoculations.

One of the safest and most effective vaccines on the market, the two HPV vaccines, Cervarix and Gardasil, are responsible for a marked decline in cervical cancer cases. Cervarix vaccinates against infection with HPV 16 and 18. Gardasil vaccinates again HPV 6, 11, 16 and 18. More than 57 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been distributed to date. The vaccine is recommended for boys and girls beginning at age 9 and up to the age of 26.

If age 9 sounds young to inoculate against a sexually transmitted disease, keep in mind that a person will only be protected against contracting the HPV viral subtypes if he or she is vaccinated before becoming sexually active. Since it is rare for a teen to ask permission before engaging in sexual activity, inoculating them in childhood helps ensure that they will truly be protected. In order to capture more children getting vaccinated with HPV, the vaccine can be administered with other vaccines common in childhood or boosters given to children prior to entering school.

Unfortunately, a misconception persists that vaccinating a child against a sexually transmitted disease will make them more likely to engage in sexual activity. Study after study has found that this is not the case. One study published last year in the journal Pediatrics, found that the vaccine did not serve as a "license" to teen girls to engage in sexual activity – it had no effect on girls' behavior or decisions about sex. Unfortunately, children who are not protected with the vaccine also don't base their decisions on their vaccination status. According to recent research, nearly one third of children ages 14 to 19 are already infected with some form of HPV.

Clearly, the need for this vaccine is great. Currently, 80% of women are infected with HPV by the age of 50. Cervical cancer used to be the No. 1 cause of cancer death for women in this country. Now, with regular screening and robust vaccination program, cases of cervical cancer have continued to decrease to the lowest level in history. While physicians have recommended the vaccine for girls since 2006, there has been a push in the last two years to vaccinate boys too. Men are typically asymptomatic carriers, and it is anticipated that the vaccine will help reduce the incidence of anal/rectal, penile and throat cancer, as well genital warts in men.

The bottom line is that most forms of cervical cancer and genital warts are preventable diseases. The HPV vaccine can safely and effectively protect people from developing these painful, deadly forms of cancer. So let's start preventing cancer and get the HPV vaccine.