HPV vaccine is the only way to prevent many cancers
Originally published in the San Antonio Express
There’s a type of cancer that we can beat most of the time. Australia is already doing it. Why aren’t we, with one of the best medical systems in the world?
A recent study in the Lancet Public Health shows that rates of cervical cancer in Australia are plummeting, as are deaths from that cancer, which kills 34,000 women a year in the United States. The reason is two-pronged and within the reach of every government in the developed world: Australia screens women rigorously to catch cancer before it starts, and even more important, it has an active immunization program to provide teenage boys and girls with the vaccine against human papillomavirus, the virus responsible for most cases of cervical cancer.
In Australia, 80.1 percent of girls and 74.1 percent of boys aged 15 were fully immunized against HPV. That was in 2015-16, and the numbers have been steadily rising, so they’re probably significantly higher now.
HPV vaccination rates are rising in the United States, too, but they aren’t nearly high enough. In 2017, slightly less than half of all teenagers were fully immunized; in Texas, the number was discouragingly lower, at 39.7 percent, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
This drive to improve the health of Australia’s women is working. A report by the Australian government shows that the mortality rate for cervical cancer in Australia dropped by more than half from 1991 to 2014; it’s now at 1.7 per 100,000 women annually. The U.S. rate is close to a third higher, at 2.3 deaths per 100,000 women, and in Texas it’s higher still, at 2.7.
But here’s the big news from the Lancet report: If Australia continues its vaccination program at this rate, “cervical cancer could be considered to be eliminated as a public health problem in Australia within the next 20 years.”
The article opens our eyes to the fact that we can virtually eliminate a disease that otherwise would kill thousands of American women each year. The timing to learn that message is perfect, given that International HPV Awareness Day was Monday.
Not only that, HPV is also a growing cause of mouth and throat cancer, which affects both men and women, as well as cancers of the penis and anus. The Lancet study focused solely on cervical cancer, but once HPV is virtually eliminated, the number of cases and deaths from these other cancers will certainly fall as well.
Meanwhile, the American Cancer Society estimates that more than 4,000 U.S. women will die this year from cervical cancer alone. Yet many parents in our state continue to believe misinformation about the HPV vaccine. Anecdotal scare stories make their way through social media without a shred of evidence to back them up.
This is what repeated, large-scale studies of the HPV vaccine, involving tens of thousands of patients, found. The vaccine is both safe and highly effective. And it does not in any way change teenagers’ sexual behavior.
Vaccinating future generations against this killer virus is now easier than ever, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that two doses were fully effective for teenagers, rather than the three that were previously recommended. The CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for preteens ages 11 or 12, although it can be given as early as age 9, and up to age 45.
This month, let’s show a new level of awareness about HPV and cervical cancer by doing like the Australians do. We can eliminate a public health menace; a simple two-dose vaccine, plus additional screening, can get us there.
Allison Winnike, J.D., is the president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership, a nonprofit vaccine advocacy and education organization serving Texas.