If you could vaccinate your children against cancer, would you?
The idea isn't as far-fetched as you might think. Human papillomavirus (or HPV), which affects more than 80 percent of sexually active people, causes nearly all cervical and anal cancers, and an estimated 70 percent of head and neck cancers. Each year in the U.S., HPV-related cancers affect roughly 36,000 men and women. Many of these could be prevented with vaccination.
According to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common reason parents don't get the HPV vaccine for their boys is because their health care provider didn't recommend it. Parents also commonly cite a lack of understanding about the vaccine.
There are more than 100 types of HPV, and 13 are currently known to cause cancer. The two Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved vaccines - Cervarix® and Gardasil® - cover two strains that are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers. A new form of Gardasil, approved in 2015, protects against five additional high-risk HPV strains, making it an even more effective vaccine.
The HPV vaccine is administered in a series of three shots over a six-month period. To be effective in preventing cancers, the vaccine must be given before exposure to the virus. Therefore, the CDC recommends vaccination of boys and girls ages 10 to 12, prior to the age when they are sexually active.
Dr. Fadi Haddad, an infectious disease specialist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, explains that the vaccine not only prevents HPV infection, but also minimizes the risk of some throat cancers. "It is important to vaccinate boys as well as girls because the infection can affect - and cause cancers in - both," explains Dr. Haddad.
The first HPV vaccine, licensed in 2006, initially was recommended only for girls to protect against cervical cancer. Subsequently, a large Swedish population study that took place between 2006 and 2017 that was published in The New England Journal of Medicine, showed that the incidence of cervical cancer was substantially reduced among vaccinated female patients.
In 2011 the CDC began recommending HPV vaccination for boys as well. However, CDC statistics from 2014 show that only about 1 in 5 boys ages 13 to 17 had received the full three-dose HPV vaccine series.
Some parents are apprehensive about inoculating their children against a sexually transmitted disease at such a young age. Because of the sensitivity of the subject, some providers are reluctant to recommend the HPV vaccine for fear of offending parents.
The first step to closing the gap in vaccination between girls and boys is to educate parents on the safety and potentially life-saving benefits of the HPV vaccine. The American Cancer Society and other groups offer training for doctors to help them become more comfortable having the conversation with parents.
The HPV vaccination has been studied very carefully and continues to be monitored by the CDC and FDA. No serious safety concerns have been linked to the HPV vaccination. The most common side effects reported are mild, and include pain and redness in the area of the arm where the shot was given, fever, dizziness and nausea.
"I recommend that all parents vaccinate their kids against human papillomavirus. The benefits are significant and outweigh these potential minor risks," says Dr. Haddad. "If you haven't already vaccinated your preteens and teens, it's not too late. Ask your child's doctor at their next appointment about getting the HPV vaccine."