Effective Vaccine for Cancer-Causing Virus Faces Hurdles

There is a vaccine that has had tremendous success since it was introduced in the United States 10 years ago, improving the lives of thousands of young women, but still is not widely administered in the United States.

The vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV), a cause of cervical cancer, has in fact been more effective than researchers thought. A study which was published in February, 2016, in the journal Pediatrics showed that for women in their 20’s, HPV rates have decreased by more than one-third. And in younger age groups, the positive effects are even more profound – for girls age 14-19, the rates decreased by 64%. These results are amazing, especially since HPV vaccination rates nationwide among girls are below 40 percent and among boys 13 – 17 are only at 20 percent.

So why are vaccination rates so low? In the United States, the HPV vaccine is given over 6 months in 3 doses, which can be perceived as an obstacle. Many parents hesitate to get their young preteen/teens vaccinated against what they see as a sexually transmitted disease, thinking it gives them permission to have sex. Some care providers hesitate to discuss HPV vaccination thinking that it will bring on a conversation about sex in younger teens that they may not be comfortable discussing.

While some providers hesitate to bring up HPV vaccination, or do so halfheartedly, medical providers need to think of the vaccination as a cancer preventative and educate parents.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus with more than 200 strains. Of those 200 strains, 40 can be sexually transmitted, and 14 of those are considered cancer-causing and “high risk.” The majority of HPVs that are sexually transmitted can cause genital warts and are referred to as “low risk” types. HPV infection is very common, but most infections clear in about one to two years. Persistent infection is related to precancerous lesions and if not treated these infections can go on to become cancerous.

Anti-vaccine groups have caused some parents to be concerned about the safety of the HPV vaccine. However, the vaccine is considered safe and its use should be encouraged. In fact, the newest version provides protection from nine strains – five more than the original vaccine. Studies in clinical trials showed the vaccine to be 100% effective in preventing infection. The most common side effect is pain or tenderness at the injection site and, less commonly, fainting.

Talk to your pediatrician, gynecologist or family practitioner about the HPV vaccine and the prevention of related cancers. More information can be obtained at www.cdc.org.

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