HPV vaccines are a medical success story in that they can prevent a number of cancers caused by the human papillomavirus. Yet only about half of adolescents in the U.S. were up to date on this vaccine last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It's important for healthcare providers to get the word out and educate patients – and parents – so that this potentially life-saving vaccine gains wider acceptance among adolescents and even young adults.
What is HPV?
There are more than 100 different kinds of HPV. Some are relatively harmless, but others are deadly and the virus can lie in wait for years before causing cancer. About 80 percent of people will get an HPV infection during their lifetimes, according to the CDC. The greatest risk of contracting an infection is for those in their late teens through mid 20s. Most of those infections will resolve themselves. But HPV is responsible for nearly all cervical cancers and also is associated with other genital, anal, and oral cancers.
Because HPV is generally sexually transmitted, there is still hesitancy among parents to vaccinate their sons and daughters, due, in large part, to a misplaced fear that it will hasten sexual activity.
The CDC recommends two doses of the vaccine for adolescents aged 11 and 12 to protect them before they are exposed to HPV. Young adolescence is the optimum time – before sexual activity – since the vaccine doesn't treat existing infections but prevents against new ones. However, recently the CDC recommended catch-up vaccinations for people through age 26 and, in some cases, the vaccine has been approved for people up to age 45 in consultation with their doctors.
Improvements in the HPV Vaccine
Since its introduction in the United States in 2006, the scope of HPV vaccine has been widened to include more strains of the virus. It is now recommended that boys and young men, as well as girls and young women, get vaccinated.
The current vaccine – Gardasil 9 – protects against nine dangerous strains of HPV responsible for genital warts and the bulk of the cases of cervical cancer. Gardasil 9 is covered by most insurance plans for those in the approved age range—9 to 26—because it counts as preventive care.
The CDC says an average of 34,800 cancers reported annually in the United States during 2012–2016 were attributable to HPV, with about 60 percent affecting women and 40 percent men. The largest number of those cases were throat and mouth cancers followed by cervical and anal cancer. Gardasil 9 targets the HPV types responsible for more than 90 percent of cancers related to the virus.
Let's Get the Word Out
We have an effective means of preventing thousands of cancers, so why risk it? Over more than a decade in use, the HPV vaccine has gained acceptance but there is still reluctance among some communities. Healthcare providers need to raise awareness among patients about the cancer-prevention benefits and make it a priority to address parental concerns.
The vaccine is safe and the science is clear: It is one of the most effective ways to lower cancer risk. More patients should take advantage of this important and groundbreaking tool in cancer prevention.
Nicole Liza Palomar, MD, FACOG, sees patients at Women's Health Care Group’s offices in Teaneck and Rutherford. To make an appointment with her, call 201-907-0900 in Teaneck, or 201-514-0300 in Rutherford, or book online at whcgnj.com or holynamemedicalpartners.org