By Patsy Stinchfield, MS, CPNP, CIC, infectious disease/immunology nurse practitioner and senior director of Infection Prevention & Control, Skin Integrity Team and the Children’s Immunization Project at Children’s Minnesota
HPV vaccination among U.S. teens remains low despite a slight increase from the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Partnership for Women and Families.
As a parent and a practicing clinician, the fact that many of our children are missing an opportunity to get protected against HPV, short for the human papillomavirus (a common sexually transmitted disease) and related cancers concerns me. Since the introduction of the HPV vaccine in 2006, the number of cervical cancer cases has been cut in half. In half. That’s monumental. We know this vaccine works, and we need to use it to the fullest extent possible.
The vaccine is safe, too. In the more than 67 million doses given thus far, no serious safety events have occurred. The most commonly reported event is fainting, which happens with other vaccines given to teens, as well, leading to our usual practice of having teens sit for 15 minutes after vaccination.
HPV infects about 79 million Americans, 14 million of whom become infected each year. About 21,000 women are affected by cancer linked with HPV, and cervical cancer is the most common. More than 4,000 women, usually in child-bearing years, die of cervical cancer. It’s also associated with other cancers, such as those that affect the throat, tongue and tonsils, in men. But the infection that causes these cancers can be prevented with the vaccine series. What parent wouldn’t want his or her child to be protected against cancer?
Recently, there is great news on the administration of the HPV vaccine – ongoing studies show that in younger individuals (9 through 14 years old) a two-dose schedule is as effective in preventing cervical cancer and genital warts as the three-dose series. For both boys and girls, the FDA approved and the CDC recommended that two-doses be given typically six months apart (minimum five months apart) at the 11-12 year old adolescent well child visit, but may be started as early as at 9 years old. The immune response is more robust at the earlier age so is certainly allowable to get a jump on cancer prevention as soon as possible. If someone starts the vaccine on or after their 15th birthday (and through age 26), they will need to follow the three-dose schedule in which the vaccine is administered at zero, one month and six months later.
With a decade of use, the HPV vaccine is proving safe and effective in preventing oral, throat, tonsillar and cervical cancers. The virus is extremely common in our world and easily passed by intimate touch, not necessarily only by sexual intercourse, so preventing the infection and potentially a life-threatening cancer is what we want to do for our kids. Children’s Minnesota has moved to this two dose schedule already.
“We don’t wait for exposure to occur before we vaccinate with any other routinely recommended vaccine,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, told CNN.
I sometimes hear from parents that they’re worried their son or daughter will be encouraged to have sexual relations because they’ve been vaccinated. While I understand their concern, there is no link between getting vaccinated and increased sexual activity.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen firsthand the devastation that vaccine-preventable diseases cause in children who haven’t been immunized. Let’s work together to take HPV-associated cancers off that list; it’s the right thing to do.