Cancer cases related to the human papillomavirus (HPV) have been heading in the wrong direction, while far too few teenagers in Texas are protected with a simple two-dose vaccine that is proving remarkably successful at preventing those cancers.
About 39,000 cases of HPV-related cancers occurred yearly from 2008 to 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, compared with 33,500 a year during the five years before.
The recent International HPV Awareness Day reminds parents to have a frank discussion about HPV, a disease responsible for most cervical cancers. It is not just a women’s concern, though. HPV also causes cancers of the throat, penis and anus in men as well as women. Every 20 minutes, someone in the United States is diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer.
Yet HPV vaccination rates are poor nationwide and especially in Texas. The vaccine is ideally given from ages 11 to 13, but only about 60 percent of U.S. teens have received at least one dose. In Texas, the number was only 49 percent. Only four states did worse. And the numbers for teens who are fully vaccinated are substantially lower.
Let’s address the main questions parents tend to have about HPV vaccination.
Does it work well?
The HPV vaccine underwent many years of testing showing that it safely prevented the strains of HPV that were most likely to cause cancer.
Recent 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. A 2016 study in New Mexico found that the incidence of precancerous lesions related to HPV fell by more than half among teenage girls from 2007 to 2014.
Much of the extraordinary success is attributed to herd immunity. When substantial numbers of both adolescent boys and girls are 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?
According to the CDC, the number of problems experienced after the HPV vaccine have been minuscule. 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 minor problems afterward. That equates to slightly more than one possible side effect for every 10,000 doses.
Does it lead to risky behavior?
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection — the most common one. That makes it hard for many parents to accept the idea of a vaccine, lest it sent a message that parents think sexual activity is OK for their teens.
They need not worry. A 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found that teens who had the HPV vaccine were no more likely to engage in sexual activity than those who hadn’t been vaccinated. How was this determined? They combed medical records, looking for signs such as whether teens had sought contraceptive counseling or STD testing. Vaccinated teens’ records were no more likely to contain signs of sexual activity.
Most people are exposed to HPV by the time they are in their mid 20s. Vaccination long before they are exposed ensures that they will be protected. The real message: No matter what, parents should want to protect their teens from a terrible disease with a safe and effective vaccine.