More Americans are being diagnosed with cancers related to the human papillomavirus, a situation that could be easily turned around in the future if more adolescents and pre-teenagers received the HPV vaccine.
There were about 39,000 cases of HPV-related cancers yearly from 2008 to 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, compared with 33,500 a year during the five years before. Yet studies during the past couple of years have shown the HPV vaccine to be remarkably successful at reducing cancers and pre-cancerous lesions.
Parents understandably want all the facts when a new vaccine comes along. They want to know that it will do the job well, and that it’s safe. The first HPV vaccine was approved in the United States in 2006, making it the newest addition to the recommended vaccination schedule for Americans younger than 18.
The higher numbers of cancers reported in recent years almost certainly means that the patients weren’t vaccinated before they became sexually active; they might have already been older when the vaccine came out, or were among the many who weren’t vaccinated even after it was approved. The vaccination rates for HPV have been rising but remain very low. We could prevent those high numbers of cancers for future generations. And who wouldn’t prevent cancer if they could?
Sunday is International HPV Awareness Day, so this is a good time for open and frank discussion of the vaccine against human papillomavirus. HPV is responsible for most of the cervical cancers in this country and worldwide. It’s not just a women’s concern, though. The virus also can cause cancers of the throat, penis and anus in men. Every 20 minutes, someone in the United States is diagnosed with a cancer related to HPV, according to the University of New Mexico’s Comprehensive Cancer Center.
In fact, preventing cancer when we can with a two-dose vaccination should be the aim of everyone in the nation who wants to see a healthier America. But HPV vaccination rates are poor nationwide and especially in Texas. About 60 percent of U.S. teens have received at least once dose, the CDC reported last year, but in Texas the number was only 49 percent.
So let’s address the three main concerns that parents have about the vaccine, in the hopes that we can prevent HPV-related cancers from afflicting future generations.
Is it effective?
The HPV vaccine underwent many years of testing before it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and added to the schedule of recommended vaccines by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showing that it prevented the strains of HPV that were most likely to cause genital warts and cancer. All vaccines go through far more testing and oversight before approval than the other medications that these agencies approve.
Of course, it always remains to be seen how a newly approved therapeutic works in the general public. So far, studies have been finding the vaccine remarkably effective.
Most recently, research from Finland found that none of the women in the study who received the HPV vaccine 15 years ago have developed any of the related cancers.
Much closer to home, a 2016 study in New Mexico found that the incidence of precancerous lesions related to HPV fell by more than half among teenage girls in the state from 2007 to 2014, an extraordinary number considering that during that time, only about 40 percent of teenage girls were fully vaccinated.
“If you take everything combined, the vaccines are better than we ever could have imagined,” Dr. Cosette Wheeler, a researcher at the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center, told the Albuquerque Journal.
Much of the success is attributed to herd immunity. When substantial numbers of both adolescent boys and girls have been vaccinated, they cannot pass the virus on to others.
The vaccine appears so effective that, according to a study last November, vaccinated women might need only three Pap smears in their lifetimes.
Is it safe?
No medical treatments are totally without the potential for side effects, but according to the CDC, the number of problems experienced after the HPV vaccine have been extremely small.
Ten million doses of the most recent HPV vaccine have been distributed, the CDC reported, and of those millions, there were 1,447 reports of problems afterward. That works out to about one possible side effect for every 10,000 doses, and almost all of those were minor and short-term.
The most common problems reported included fainting, dizziness, headache, nausea and redness or soreness at the place of injection.
It also is very important to remember that these were problems that occurred in patients after they’d received the vaccine, but not necessarily because of it. People develop headaches, nausea and so forth for many kinds of reasons. With 10 million doses of vaccine, some of the reported issues afterward might have been a coincidence.
Does it lead to risky behavior?
A 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found that teens who had been vaccinated against HPV were no more likely to engage in sexual activity than those who hadn’t been vaccinated. The researchers found this by examining medical records, looking at whether teens had sought contraceptive counseling, or had been treated for sexually transmitted diseases or seen because of teen pregnancy. Vaccinated teens were no more likely than unvaccinated teens to have any of that in their medical files.
It makes sense, when you think about it. For teens who even know about HPV, it’s probably not uppermost in their minds when it comes to their decisions about sexual activity. They know there are many sexually transmitted diseases, including the virus that causes AIDS.
Getting teenagers vaccinated for HPV means giving them the message that their parents want to prevent them from getting a terrible disease that can be prevented through two doses of a safe and effective vaccine.
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