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A Cancer Vaccine?

Our world was a much scarier place before vaccines. Polio, tetanus, and diphtheria are all among the afflictions that used to be major concerns for people everywhere. While these diseases do still exist, their infection rates and impact have been reduced to the point where most of us hardly give them a thought. That peace of mind is the result of vaccines.

Yet despite available vaccines, diseases that can pose a threat still exist. Some of these include flu, meningitis, pneumonia, and even some forms of cancer.

Deanna Lee Kepka, PHD, MPH, an associate professor in the University of Utah College of Nursing is working to protect vulnerable populations, specifically young women at risk for cervical cancer. She sees the threat of cervical cancer diminishing in some parts of the world, all thanks to HPV vaccine.

HPV stands for human papillomavirus, which is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that "79 million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, are infected with HPV." A person with HPV has the risk of developing a number of health problems, including cervical cancer and five other types of cancer.

The end goal of the HPV vaccine—and all vaccines—is to reduce the likelihood of infection by a particular disease to the point where it is essentially no longer a threat. That is what happened with diseases like polio, and it can happen with HPV too. In places where the war against HPV infection is being won, it is due to high vaccination rates.

"Australia and Rwanda are among the first countries that will be eliminating cervical cancer in their nations, and the U.S. is far behind on that," says Kepka. "Who would have thought in our lifetime we can say that? But Australia is saying that. They're going to be the first country to do it."

That's great for Australia, but the US is lagging due to a phenomenon called "vaccine hesitancy." Some of the reasons people hesitate to get the HPV vaccine are the same as those for any other vaccine. They range from mistrust of pharmaceutical companies and the government, to fear of side effects, misinformation on social media, and simply not thinking vaccinations are important.

Specific to HPV, the vaccine is sometimes not prioritized by patients and physicians and not always among the required vaccinations for a child to attend school—including in Utah—even though it is recommended by the CDC, American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and many other authoritative institutions. Also, because HPV is transmitted through sexual intercourse, and the recommended age to get HPV vaccine is around 11 or 12, some parents may feel uncomfortable discussing it with their child or think the vaccine just isn't unnecessary.

But as Kepka explains, "The point of the HPV vaccine is to get it for you to have the protection against HPV long before you'd be sexually active."

For vaccine-hesitant parents, Kepka's recommends counseling with a competent physician and seeking evidence-based resources, specifically the CDC. The CDC provides a list of recommended vaccinations, a timetable for getting them, and information on the risks and benefits. Parents can also learn more about the CDC's Vaccines for Children program, which assists those who may not be able to afford vaccinations.

"If a parent is uninsured or underinsured, up through age 18, their child cannot be denied one of the vaccines that's included in the CDC immunization schedule for kids," explains Kepka.

Talk to your doctor about vaccines. At the end of the day, your decision to vaccinate, whether for HPV or any other disease, goes beyond just you and your family. It touches everyone around you.

"It's not just about your child," says Kepka. "It's about protecting your community."