OP ED: Not enough youths get HPV vaccine
Originally published in the Corpus Christi Caller Times
Cancer can be devastating. That’s why breast cancer is the focus of many high-profile awareness and treatment campaigns. Cancer upends lives, sometimes proving fatal. It can require invasive surgeries, expensive chemotherapy and seemingly endless hospital visits. If there were a shot your adolescent could be given to prevent breast cancer, wouldn’t you want it?
While a breast cancer vaccine is still years away, there is a shot to prevent some cancers right now — the HPV vaccine — but not enough people are getting it. As we mark Cervical Health Awareness Month, we remind all parents: Please protect your children — boys and girls — by making sure they receive this potentially lifesaving vaccine.
Every 20 minutes, someone in the United States is diagnosed with a human papillomavirus-related cancer, with cervical cancer being the most common. Yet only about one-third of teenage girls and one-fifth of teenage boys in Texas get all three doses of the potentially lifesaving HPV vaccine — just shy of the national average. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for every year that we stay at current coverage levels, rather than achieving the Healthy People 2020 objective of 80 percent, we will see 4,400 cervical cancer cases and 1,400 cervical cancer deaths.
That’s 4,400 times a year doctors will have to utter the words, “You have cancer,” 4,400 times women will have to go through invasive treatments, 4,400 times parents will have to fear that they will outlive their children. And 1,400 times that they will.
Getting vaccinated isn’t just about protecting young women from cervical cancer. HPV is estimated to be responsible for 5 percent of all cancers worldwide, including several types of cancer that affect men. In fact, current rates of HPV-related head and neck cancers in young men are skyrocketing in the U.S. Many estimates predict the number of these types of cancers will surpass that of cervical cancers in the coming years.
But unlike cervical cancer where we have good screening methods, such as Pap smears, to help identify pre-cancers before they get too far, there is no such screening methods for the HPV-related cancers that affect boys.
Even if you don’t think your child is at risk for HPV now, she or he almost certainly will be. HPV is extremely common. Nearly everyone gets it at some point — and roughly 80 percent before age 50. While some HPV cases clear up on their own, others lead to cancer. We have no way of predicting which cases will be harmless and which ones will become cancerous. That’s why preventing cases in the first place is so important and the HPV vaccine is so essential.
The vaccine is most effective when administered at 11 or 12 years old — when the immune system responds best to the vaccine and far before your child is engaged in any kind of sexual activity. If that window has closed for you and your family, it’s likely not too late. The shot is approved up to age 26.
The HPV vaccine is an important public health tool that is tragically underused. By ensuring your children receive three simple shots in early adolescence, you reduce their risk of a terrifying diagnosis. You reduce their risk of endless doctors’ visits and uncomfortable procedures. You reduce their risk of cancer.
Don’t wait. Vaccinate your 11-year-olds against HPV today.