By Dr. Graham A. Colditz
You’ve likely heard of the HPV vaccine, but what you may be surprised to hear is that it is one of the most important advances in the field of cancer in the last 20 years. And while it may not be on the list of required vaccines at your child’s school, it is still very important for your child’s future health and well-being.
Infection with the human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a significant cause of many types of cancer in both males and females, including cancers of the cervix, penis, anus, vagina, vulva and head and neck. Each of these cancers can be quite serious, and, depending on the type, can also impact fertility, sexual function and overall quality of life.
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection and, actually, very common. About 4 in 5 people at some point in their lives will be infected with it. Typically, there are no symptoms, so people often don’t know they have it. While most HPV infections clear up on their own, some do not. HPV infections that don’t go away can lead to cancer.
The HPV vaccine protects against specific types of cancer-causing HPV, and it’s estimated that 31,000 cancers a year in the U.S. could be completely avoided through vaccination.
“HPV vaccination provides safe, effective and long-lasting protection against cancers caused by HPV,” said Dr. Lindsay Kuroki, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
The largest benefit from the vaccine is the prevention of cervical cancer, which is almost always caused by HPV. Cervical cancer is diagnosed in 13,000 women each year in the U.S., and is a top cause of cancer deaths globally. Studies have found the HPV vaccine so effective that there is now a very real possibility that cervical cancers could at some point be all but eliminated.
Of course, the key to that – and other benefits – is that people actually get vaccinated. And while we’ve been doing better on that front in the U.S., we still have a lot of room for improvement. Less than half of teens are up to date with vaccination.
The vaccine is recommended for both boys and girls around age 11 or 12, though it can be given as early as age 9 and up until men and women are in their mid-20s and possibly beyond.
If your child is in the age group to be vaccinated and hasn’t had the vaccine, ask your health-care provider about it. Not all providers will bring it up. This doesn’t mean it’s not important. But it does mean you may need to be proactive and raise the issue yourself.
“Parents try their best to keep their children safe and happy. However, sometimes it’s hard to realize that the choices you make now for your child will impact their health in the future. HPV vaccination is an opportunity that all parents should know of so that they can make the best health-care decisions for their children.” Kuroki said.
It’s your family’s health. Take control.
Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.