HPV vaccine works – but only if kids can get it

The News TribuneJuly 23, 2013 

It’s baffling that some parents don’t get their kids inoculated against such once-common childhood diseases as measles, diphtheria and whooping cough. It’s just as baffling that parents would not want their children protected against a virus that causes cancer in 19,000 women and 8,000 men in the United States every year — often proving fatal.

Because of rising rates of oral sex — compounded by promiscuity — the human papillomavirus (HPV) now is the leading cause of head and throat cancers, causing more cases than even smoking, drinking and chewing tobacco. This is an exceptionally dangerous virus. Spread by skin contact, it is the chief cause of cervical cancer; it also causes vulvar, vaginal, penile cancer.

The HPV vaccine — a series of three inoculations over six months — should be given to children (as young as 9 years old) before they become sexually active to provide the most protection.

Some parents argue that the vaccine is fairly new, so its value isn’t really known. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control begs to differ. The anti-vaccine argument got shot down yet again recently by a study supported by the National Cancer Institute. It concluded that the vaccine tested, Cervarix, not only protects women against cervical cancer but also appears to offer protection against throat cancers caused by HPV.

That’s important for women but even more so for men. The vaccination works the same way in men, and they’re more likely to be infected through oral-genital contact than women are.

Another indication of the vaccine’s success comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It found that HPV infection rates fell 56 percent among U.S. teen girls in the first four years after the vaccination was introduced — even though only about a third of girls ages 13 to 17 were vaccinated.

The CDC sees that as a good news/ bad news thing: good news that so many girls are being protected, bad news that so many are still vulnerable. The agency estimates that if the vaccination rate were 80 percent, some 50,000 cases of HPV-caused cancer would be prevented in the current cohort of girls.

Parents are mistaken if they think the HPV vaccine is a girl thing. Their boys will someday be men, and they shouldn’t be deliberately put at risk for cancer of the throat or genitals. Earlier this year, actor Michael Douglas might have saved lives when he attributed his serious case of throat cancer to oral sex. That raised public awareness of the link that was not widely known.

Cancer caused by sexual behavior is an uncomfortable topic for many parents, but they don’t have to get into details with young children. It’s easier to tell those children they’re being vaccinated “against cancer,” and leave the specifics until they’re older.

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