Cancer prevention: Upping the HPV vaccine message
Back-to-school time means making sure students are up-to-date on vaccinations. This year parents of adolescents likely will hear more about one shot sequence in particular – the HPV vaccine.
HPV is short for human papillomavirus, which can cause cancer in men and women.
The vaccine has been available since 2006, but it’s getting more of a push from health professionals because of its link to cancer prevention. In July, the American Cancer Society launched a campaign to increase vaccination rates and eradicate all cancers related to HPV by 2026.
Campaign ads promote the vaccine’s use for both boys and girls. Also, the agency is supplying educational materials and data to doctors to help in talking with patients and answering questions.
“The campaign came out recently, and it’s a commitment pulling together partnerships with pediatricians and other health professionals,” said Christina Kelly, western division American Cancer Society director of communication.
“The reason we did this is it’s the one vaccination we know of that can prevent six different types of cancers. It’s safe and effective.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the human papillomavirus is a sexually transmitted infection that “nearly every” sexually active, unvaccinated person will contract at some point in life, although some people don’t show symptoms.
Some strains cause genital warts, while others can lead to six cancers: throat, penile, anal, vaginal, vulvar and cervical.
Based on data from 2011 to 2015, about 42,700 HPV-associated cancers occur in the U.S. each year, the CDC says. Cervical cancer is the most common among women, and cancers in the throat area are most common among men.
The CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for 11- or 12-year-old boys and girls, in two doses at least six months apart, so that patients are protected before being exposed to the virus. It’s typically two shots for anyone as long as they begin by age 15, and three doses for those 16 to 26.
The adolescent years are considered by medical experts as an optimal time for receiving the vaccine because that’s when the body’s immune system best responds, Kelly said.
“Age does matter; that’s what scientist have determined is the best time,” she said. “It’s very safe. That is the first question parents usually ask.
“Who doesn’t want to prevent cancer when they grow up? There’s no risk.”
She said the vaccine also can be administered as young as 9, as well as to the older youth effectively.
Returning from a two-day HPV vaccine training session last week, Nick Randall was persuaded by the scientific data he heard. A second-year medical student, he plans to become an oncologist after training through Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane.
“It’s actually exciting because we have the opportunity to eliminate HPV cancers, and that’s the goal,” Randall said. “We’ve never eliminated a cancer before.”
“The overall goal of the campaign is to have 80 percent of age-eligible children fully vaccinated by 2026. We’re looking at data that’s showing us, if we can do that by 2026 and maintain that level, these cancers could very well be eliminated within 40 years.”
Multiple doctors, nurses, medical technicians and cancer survivors were at the same Southern California conference sponsored by the American Cancer Society, he said.
But Randall also is persuaded as a parent of a 5-month-old son.
“I think it’s really exciting that when he grows up that HPV cancers could be a thing of the past,” Randall said. “He’s definitely going to get this vaccine when he’s 11 or 12. It’s really empowering to me as a parent. I have the ability to prevent those cancers in my child.”
Both Kelly and Randall noted challenges in reaching higher vaccination rates. Public education about the vaccine isn’t as widespread as other immunizations, and some parents decline to have their child receive that vaccine specifically – or even all vaccinations – for various reasons.
HPV vaccination rates continue to lag behind other immunizations. U.S. survey information indicates that in 2016, 60 percent of teens aged 13-17 years received one or more doses of HPV vaccine, an increase of 4 percentage points from 2015, according to the CDC.
But the gap in HPV vaccination rates between boys and girls is narrowing, the agency says. About 65 percent of girls received the first dose of HPV vaccine compared with 56 percent of boys. The latest estimates represent a 6 percentage point increase from 2015 for boys, while rates for girls were similar to 2015.
“There’s not enough education about the HPV vaccine out there,” Randall said. “A lot of people think it’s just for girls. Some people see it as sort of inducing promiscuity in children, but studies have shown that it doesn’t do that; you’re not more promiscuous if you get the vaccine.”
“It’s definitely for both boys and girls at ages 11 and 12. It’s safe and effective and it should be any and all children. I’m a religious person myself, and I will definitely still be giving my son the vaccine when he’s 11 or 12.”
HPV also involves oral cancers, so the American Cancer Society is working with dentists for early detection, Kelly said.