As parents and their kids head out to pediatricians’ offices and health clinics over the next few weeks to update vaccinations required for school, they shouldn’t neglect an often overlooked vaccine that will protect their daughters from more than 70% of cervical cancers and their sons from more than 70% of throat cancers: the vaccine against the human papillomavirus (HPV).
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is the source of more than 19,000 cancers in women and 8,000 in men every year in the U.S., and causes a host of other nasty diseases. HPV infection is extremely common in the United States: nearly 79 million Americans, the majority in their late teens and early twenties, are infected with HPV. In most cases, HPV shows no symptoms.
The good news is that highly effective vaccines exist to protect young people from HPV: Gardasil for males and females, and Cervarix, for females only.
However, despite its usefulness in the war on certain cancers, less than a third of teenage girls—and even fewer boys—complete all three shots necessary for the vaccine to be fully protective against the virus.
Because HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, one of the biggest concerns for parents is that receiving the vaccine will somehow promote earlier sexual activity in their children. That assumption is unfounded. A recent study published in the prestigious medical journal, Pediatrics, demonstrated that there is absolutely no connection between the vaccination and teenage promiscuity.
Additionally, the vaccine is extremely safe, has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine.
The vaccine works. In Australia, where 73% of girls under 18 have received all three HPV injections, there has been a substantial decline in the number of cases of cervical abnormalities, which are pre-cursors to cervical cancer. Even in the United States, with its low vaccination rates, cancer-causing HPV infections have dropped by 50% among teenage girls since the vaccine was introduced.
For girls in the U.S. who are 13 and younger, current vaccination rates will prevent 45,000 cases of cervical cancer and 14,000 deaths over the course of their lifetimes; increasing the U.S. vaccination rate to 80% could prevent an additional 53,000 cancer diagnoses and nearly 17,000 deaths.
The earlier a person is protected from exposure to HPV, the better. Health officials recommend that the HPV vaccine be administered between the ages of 11 and 12, but it has proven effective if received up until the age of 26. It is extremely important that parents schedule all three shots necessary for the vaccine upfront so the second and third shots aren’t forgotten in the day-to-day busyness of life.
I am a 14-year old Girl Scout who was inspired to implement the public health campaign, It Takes 3 to Knock-Out HPV, when a family friend died at a very young age from cervical cancer. I was relieved to know that there was a vaccine that could prevent the vast majority of cervical cancer, as well as other diseases, but discouraged to discover that only a small fraction of girls were completing the vaccine, and thereby obtaining protection from these diseases.
The Gold Award is the highest award in Girl Scouting, and for my Gold Award project, I decided to undertake a public health campaign to communicate to my peers the importance of getting the HPV vaccine and completing all three shots necessary for protection.
I have established a website (www.32KOHPV.com), created informational materials for health clinics and doctors’ offices and partnered with San Antonio MetroHealth’s Project Worth to make presentations to my peers, all with the goal of increasing HPV vaccination rates in San Antonio and beyond.
When speaking about the benefits of the HPV vaccine, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stated, “The bottom line is this: It is possible to protect the next generation from cancer, and we need to do it.”
Parents of San Antonio, please join me in making Bexar County a leader in increasing HPV vaccination rates in the United States and reducing cancer rates among its citizens.
Jane Emma is a sophomore at Saint Mary’s Hall and a Girl Scout Senior who volunteers with Project Worth, the Metropolitan Health District’s effort to reduce teen pregnancy in San Antonio. She loves musical theater and wants to be an engineer.