Human papillomaviruses (HPV) cause the most common sexually transmitted infections in the world and are responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer in females and genital warts in males and females.
So here’s a question — Did you know that there is a vaccine that can prevent the majority of cancers caused by HPV?
“Every year in the United States, HPV causes 32,500 cancers in females and males,” says Jamie Harrison, MD, a family medicine physician at Southeast Primary Care in Cape Girardeau who specializes in the care of both children and adults. “The HPV vaccine can prevent 30,000 of these.”
The human papillomavirus actually is a group of more than 150 related viruses, some of which can cause cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every four people will have a form of the virus in their body at some point in their life. Typically, there are no early symptoms and the virus can spread through sexual contact.
“While the body clears nine out of 10 infections on its own, unfortunately some progress,” explains Dr. Harrison. “This can lead to genital warts and/or cancer in both females and males.”
Cancers caused by HPV include cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers, oropharyngeal (mouth or throat) cancers, and anal or penile cancers. The HPV vaccine available in the United States — called Gardasil 9 — targets the most common types of HPV that are responsible for 80% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts, which may trigger cancer later in life if left untreated.
Dr. Harrison is on the front lines of educating parents and children about the benefits of the HPV vaccine. In her family medicine practice, she brings up the topic as often as she can, during routine annual wellness exams, including well child checks and well teen checks. “It’s part of my job to talk about healthy habits and to educate children and adults about cancer prevention whenever they come to see me,” she says.
Common and expected side effects that she tells her patients include redness and swelling at the injection side. Rare side effects include lightheadedness, fainting or nausea directly following the injection. Notes Dr. Harrison, “I give this vaccine very frequently in my practice and have never experienced the latter. The benefits of this vaccine far outweigh the risks.”
HPV Vaccine Recommendations
The HPV vaccine has been available since 2006 for girls and since 2009 for boys. Despite being available for more than a decade, though, the overall percentage of the number of girls and boys obtaining the vaccine is still low. In 2016, the national average was about 50 percent. In Missouri, it was far less, with 28.3 percent of girls and 11.3 percent of boys in the state receiving at least one dose of the HPV vaccine series.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wants to change that. In its Healthy People 2020 goals, the department wants to increase the HPV vaccination rates among 13-15 year olds to 80 percent. NCI-designated Cancer Centers across the United States now are actively advocating for higher HPV vaccination rates.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends vaccinations for both boys and girls beginning at age 11 or 12, but it can be started as early as age 9. Dr. Harrison also notes that the earlier the vaccine series is started, the fewer the number of injections.
“If you start the vaccine series between the ages of 9 and 14, the series is complete with only two injections, six months apart,” she says. “If the vaccines are started at age 15 or later, the series requires three injections to complete.”
“I’m very passionate about talking about this with my patients because I have seen the pain, physical destruction, and emotional stress that is caused by a diagnosis of cancer,” urges Dr. Harrison. “I don’t want to have a single patient going through cancer treatment if it can be prevented.”
She adds, “This is huge. Let’s focus on preventing some cancers versus talking about cancer treatment. Get the HPV vaccine.”
The HPV Vaccine - Get the Facts
- The HPV vaccine has been available for more than 10 years (since 2006 for girls and 2009 for boys) and is safe and effective.
- The vaccine is recommended for women up to age 26 and for men up to age 21.
- There are more than 200 types of human papillomaviruses. About a dozen of them can cause various cancers, including cervical, anal, penile, mouth (oropharyngeal), vulvar and vaginal cancers.
- The vaccine targets the most aggressive types of HPV that are responsible for 80% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts
- If the vaccine is initiated before the age of 15, it requires two injections given over six months. If the vaccine is started later, it will require three injections.