It’s well known by now that we have a vaccine that can prevent cancer. Even though this vaccine was approved for girls in 2006 and for boys in 2011, that’s still an amazing sentence to write. We have a vaccine that can prevent certain types of cancer. And yet a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the kids in the United States aren’t getting it.
The HPV vaccine is widely known to prevent certain types of cervical cancer, but the benefits are actually more broad than that. It’s true that, in the United States, 4,000 women die of cervical cancer every year and an estimated 70 to 90 percent of those deaths could have been prevented by the HPV vaccine. But if you think this is only a vaccine for women, you’d be wrong. According to the Atlantic:
There are also more than 7,000 cancers of the head and neck in the U.S. every year deemed “potentially HPV-associated,” according to the CDC. Around 5,700 of those are in men. That’s in addition to 3,000 HPV-associated anal cancers (1,100 in men), 2,300 new cases of vulvar cancer, 800 penile, and 600 vaginal. The vaccine could prevent many, though an unclear number, of these cases.
Not only could this vaccine prevent thousands of cancers in the United States, alone, it’s also safe. And it works! Since the vaccine was given the OK for girls in 2006, the prevalence of the type of HPV the vaccine prevents is down 56 percent. Adopting widespread usage of the HPV vaccine has been a no-brainer for other countries. In Australia, the vaccination rate for boys is between 70 and 80 percent, and for girls it’s almost 100 percent. In Rwanda, 80 percent of girls are vaccinated. In fact, the CDC thinks that if we can hit Rwanda’s levels of vaccination, we can prevent 50,000 girls alive today from getting cancer. That’s incredible.
What is not so incredible is our actual vaccination rate. Even though 11- to 12-years-old is the recommended sweet spot for getting the HPV vaccine, less than half of teens in the United States have gotten it. Between 2012 and 2013, there was only a 5 percent increase. That is not great.
Because HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, I was worried that the resistance to vaccination came from some puritanical notion of appropriate teenage sexuality, especially when it comes to girls. The new CDC report, however, suggests that this might not be the case. One of the top five reasons parents choose not to get their teen vaccinated is because it wasn’t recommended to them by a medical professional. However, even when the vaccine is recommended, parents often choose not to vaccinate.
So what can we do? Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant U.S. surgeon general and director of the National Center of Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, thinks that we need a better way to make parents understand how important this vaccine is to the future health of their children. Just talking about it with a doctor isn’t enough:
“We think it’s a much better way to say, ‘Today there are three recommended vaccines: meningitis, Tdap and HPV,’” Schuchat said. “Really mainstreaming the recommendation for HPV together with the other two recommended vaccines; we think that is a very clear way to send a strong recommendation and it’s easy for parents to understand.”
The optimal time for boys and girls to receive the vaccine is at age 11 or 12, when studies have shown that their bodies produce the strongest antibody response. “When people say let’s talk about it, let’s wait and we can do it later,” Schuchat said, “so often teens are never back in the office; and you really don’t know when they’ll be exposed to the virus in their later years.”
With 14 million new HPV infections in the United States per year, we can hardly afford to wait.
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