HPV Vaccine is All About Cancer Prevention
In recognition of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Lara Zibners* has contributed this guest post on the importance of HPV vaccination for both girls and boys.
Last year I went on a cycling weekend out in California with four other women, all of us doctors. We were there to celebrate my dear friend’s recovery from breast cancer. Of course there was the usual debauchery– feather boas included– that takes place when 5 middle-aged women have left their husbands in charge of the children. But there was still a sense of sobriety, knowing why we were all there and wishing that “chemo” and “reconstructive surgery” weren’t the frequent topics of conversation that they were. And with cancer on our minds, this group of five female physicians soon found ourselves talking about—what else?—genital warts.
The OB-Gyn in the group waxed poetically about how excited she was to immunize her patients against HPV—the human papillomavirus. It’s long been known that HPV is responsible for nearly all cases of cervical cancer in women. HPV is a nasty little virus that spreads from skin-to-skin, person-to-person. Often this occurs during sexual contact but can also be passed from mother to child. Many people infected with HPV don’t even realize it, meaning they continue to pass the infection to others. Hence the some 6 million people infected every year with HPV. And while HPV causes unsightly genital warts, that’s not what bothers physicians about it. What bothers us is that HPV causes cancer. And cancer, to put it bluntly, sucks.
Good news is there’s a vaccine that can protect us from the most common strains of HPV that cause cancer. It is currently recommended that girls between the ages of 11 and 12 receive 3 doses of the vaccine. As of 2011, this was extended to include the routine vaccination of boys. Naturally this caused a stir, since HPV is usually blamed for causing cervical cancer. And a boy isn’t supposed to have a cervix. So what was this? An act of chivalry? A sort of “holding the door” open so cancer wouldn’t whack a girl in the head?
No, the recommendation to immunize boys against HPV wasn’t just to protect their future sexual partners from cervical cancer. About 12,000 women a year are diagnosed in the US with cervical cancer and about 4,000 die annually from the disease. So, yes, immunizing males would have a significant impact on these numbers. But that’s not the point. The point is that about 7,000 males are also diagnosed every year with an HPV-related cancer, because HPV is a known cause of penile, anal, and oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) cancers in men.
So why subject a child to a series of shots when his mind is still hopefully on Nintendo and not on more, um, adult past times? Because for this vaccine to work, we need to protect children before their first sexual encounter. After is too late for far too many of our young people. And—just sit down, I know what you are going to say—even if he waits until he’s a grown man to engage in these, um, past times, getting the shot at age 11 or 12 means a better antibody response than seen in adults. Which means greater protection. Which means less cancer.
Look, I know this is a difficult vaccine for people on many, many levels. Even those who completely believe in the science of vaccination sometimes hesitate when asked to immunize their pure and innocent angel against a disease that is so strongly related to sexual activity. I get that. But the fact is that children do grow up. And they do have sex. And as a mother if I know that vaccinating my children when they are still my little babies will give them the best chance at avoiding cancer when they are adults, then I will.
Because like I said, cancer is no joke. I’ve watched too many lives that were touched by, or destroyed by, this disease. Both as a physician and a loved-one. As have my crazy boa-wearing friends. Which meant that the voices of two pediatricians and two internal medicine doctors soon jumped in, singing the praises of a vaccine that may one day save our own children’s lives.
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