Doctors say your child should get the HPV vaccine. Here’s why.

HPV infection is leading cause of cervical cancer

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PHOENIX (Cancer Treatment Centers of America) - Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide, according to Cancer Treatment Centers of America. The good news is that it’s highly treatable - and survivable - if caught early.

The fight against cervical cancer happens on two fronts. Women must pay attention to their bodies and be diligent in preventative care and screening. Just as important, possibly more important, is the preventive care that needs to happen in the tween and teen years, with parents adding a vaccine to their child’s immunization schedule.

These are things many people don’t like to talk about, but if talking will save your life or the life of a loved one, let’s get to it.

Preventing HPV: There’s a vaccine for kids and teens

No parent wants to think about their kids having sex. Ever. But especially not when they’re young. Planning ahead and taking action now, however, will protect your kids when they get older.

HPV vaccination is cancer prevention
HPV vaccination is cancer prevention(National Foundation for Infectious Diseases)

Many parents encourage their children to wait to have sex, but abstinence is not the answer to preventing HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer. Yes, it spreads during sex. But it also spreads through kissing. “It’s contact. … As long as you have it in your oral mucosa, you pass it on to your partner,” explained Dr. Dennis Scribner, the chief of gynecologic oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

The good news is that there’s a vaccine for HPV. It’s for both boys and girls, but they have to get it early – not just before they become sexually active but also before their first kiss. The CDC says kids as young as 9 can get the vaccine but recommends it at age 11 or 12.

“Early protection works best, “the CDC says. “That’s why the HPV vaccine is recommended earlier rather than later. It protects your child long before they ever have contact with the virus.

The HPV vaccine is available for kids as young as 9.
The HPV vaccine is available for kids as young as 9.(123RF)

The HPV vaccine is called Gardasil 9, and it is two doses six months to one year apart. The CDC recommends three doses over six months for kids who get their first shot on or after their 15th birthday.

“As you get the vaccine, you develop antibodies against the virus.” Dr. Scribner said. “It is a huge public health concern that only a third of patients in this country have gotten the HPV vaccine.”

“It is really impossible for me to overstate the importance of HPV vaccination as a public health strategy,” Dr. Maurie Markman, the president of medicine and science at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, told Healio in January, which is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. “Essentially all - I repeat all - cervix cancer is due to HPV infection.”

“HPV vaccination is cancer prevention.”

The CDC says the HPV vaccine is so effective that HPV infections and cervical precancers have dropped significantly since it was first used in the U.S. in 2006. Those numbers will continue to go down as more kids and teens get vaccinated. “We now have very strong data - worldwide data ... - that we may be able to eliminate cervical cancer in the world if we vaccinate appropriately,” Dr. Markman said.

“It is a huge public health concern that only a third of patients in this country have gotten...
“It is a huge public health concern that only a third of patients in this country have gotten the HPV vaccine.”(Cancer Treatment Centers of America)

While cervical cancer is the most common cancer caused by HPV, it’s not the only one. HPV infections also can lead to penile cancer, vulvar and vaginal cancer, anal cancer, and oropharyngeal cancer. (Your oropharynx is the back of your throat, including the base of your tongue and tonsils.) There are no recommended screening tests for these yet so diagnosis is difficult. “These cancers are usually diagnosed through a physical exam when a patient has symptoms.,” according to CTCA. “HPV-related cancers develop slowly over time, and it’s possible to have HPV for a long time without showing any signs or symptoms.”

The HPV vaccine is recommended for people 26 and younger, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it for use through age 45. That’s a conversation you need to have with your doctor. The vaccine is more effective for younger people because they are less likely to have been exposed to HPV.

The CDC says the HPV vaccine has “a reassuring safety record,” but like any medication, it can cause some side effects. They are generally mild and should clear up within a day or two. Those side effects, which can be triggered by almost any vaccine, include pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site, fever, dizziness or fainting right after the shot, nausea, headache and fatigue, and muscle or joint pain.

“The benefits of HPV vaccination far outweigh the risk of potential side effects,” the CDC says.

Awareness and action are keys to preventing cervical cancer

Who is at risk for cervical cancer?

Any person with a cervix is at risk for developing cervical cancer, which is most often caused by some types of human papillomavirus. “HPV is a common virus that is passed from one person to another during sex,” explains the Centers for Disease Control. And it’s highly transmissible. “Almost every unvaccinated person who is sexually active will get HPV at some time in their life,” the agency says.

Many people infected with the virus, including men, do not know it. There are often no symptoms. The immune system kicks in and does what it does best, getting rid of the infection without two years.

But what if your body’s natural defenses can’t clear the infection? That’s when things get dangerous, especially for older women. “Many of them have immunological disorders,” Dr. Scribner explained. “Chronic inflammation, chronic suppression of their immune system creates the changes that allow this HPV infection to become more serious.”

The CDC says about 10% of women with HPV infections will develop long-lasting infections that put them at risk for cervical cancers. It starts with a few abnormal cells. Because signs and symptoms, if there are any, can be subtle early on, screenings – taking a close look at cervical cells – are the only way to know if there might be an issue.

Even with advanced disease, the symptoms, including pain during sex or abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding, can be attributed to any number of things. Or cervical cancer could be the cause. There’s only one way to know. That’s why those routine screens are of the utmost importance.

“Routine cervical cancer screening is very effective for preventing cervical cancer and deaths...
“Routine cervical cancer screening is very effective for preventing cervical cancer and deaths from the disease.”(Cancer Treatment Centers of America)

Regular screenings are essential

“Routine cervical cancer screening is very effective for preventing cervical cancer and deaths from the disease,” explains the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. That’s why the American Cancer Society recommends an HPV test every five years, starting at age 25. If you cannot get a standalone HPV test every five years, you can do an HPV/Pap test every five years or a Pap test every three years.

“Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States,” according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. “Now, thanks to cervical cancer screening and HPV vaccination, it is the most preventable of all female cancers.”

We’re all busy, and it’s easy to let time get away from us. But nothing is more important than your health, which is why you need to make the time to look after yourself. Spending that time now could mean you have more time – quality time – with your loved ones down the road. There’s no price you can put on that.

Be proactive and involved in your health care. Put routine screenings on your calendar and if you have a smartphone, set reminders to make those appointments. They could save your life.

CNN: Advanced-stage cervical cancer is on the rise

“Prevention is key.”

“Preventing cancer is better than treating it,” the CDC says. That’s something on which everybody can agree, which is why medical professionals want people to know about the HPC vaccine and understand how it works to prevent cervical and other cancers.

“Prevention is key,” Dr. Scribner said. “As young adults, get the [HPV] vaccine. As older people, make sure you have normal Pap smears. And be aware.”

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The doctors of Cancer Treatment Centers of America focus on cancer. Every stage. Every day.
The doctors of Cancer Treatment Centers of America focus on cancer. Every stage. Every day.(Cancer Treatment Centers of America)

About City of Hope

City of Hope, one of the top 10 cancer hospitals in the U.S., is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of people with cancer, diabetes, and other life-threatening illnesses. Its mission is to transform the future of cancer care. Each day City of Hope researchers, associates, scientists, doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, graduate students, fundraising specialists, marketing professionals, volunteers, and support staff work to turn science into a practical benefit; hope into reality.

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The Wishing Tree carries wishes of hope and healing for City of Hope and CTCA patients.
The Wishing Tree carries wishes of hope and healing for City of Hope and CTCA patients.(City of Hope)