One of the most important vaccines for your child to get is one against human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that can cause at least six types of cancer in later life and genital warts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But, like other vaccines for adolescents, its rate of administration has dropped nearly 20% in the past 20 months.
“The HPV vaccine is a phenomenal cancer prevention vaccine that has proven to be safe and effective in millions and millions of doses and has been widely used in the U.S. for well over 10 years,” says Deanna Kepka, PhD, an investigator at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the director of Global and International Health in the University of Utah College of Nursing. “It is truly a gift to our children that significantly lessens the prospect that they will have to undergo treatment for a devastating set of cancers in adulthood.”
What Causes HPV?
Each year, about 13 million Americans become infected with HPV, according to the CDC. Although it is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States, it can also be spread through prolonged contact with infected skin, such as holding hands. Often it has no symptoms, so most people don’t know they have it.
Up to 80% of Americans are infected with HPV at some point in their lives, usually in their teens or early 20s, Kepka says. Most HPV infections (9 out of 10) go away by themselves within two years. However, some HPV infections will last longer and cause cancer many years later, often in a person’s 50s or 60s. HPV infections are thought to be responsible for 60% to 90% of:
- Cervix, vagina, and vulva cancers in women
- Penile cancers in men
- Anal cancers in both women and men
- Back of the throat (oropharyngeal) cancers, including the base of the tongue and tonsils, in both men and women
About 45,000 people are diagnosed with these cancers each year in the U.S., according to the CDC. However, research suggests HPV vaccination can prevent nearly 33,000 of these life-changing diagnoses.
In fact, since vaccination first became available in 2006, incidence of the HPV types that cause most HPV-related cancers and genital warts have plunged 88% among teen girls and 81% among young adult women.
HPV doesn't only affect women. More than four out of every 10 cases of cancer caused by HPV occur among men. Every year in the U.S., more than 14,000 men get cancers caused by HPV.
Less information is available about men, in part, because fewer of them have been vaccinated. However, research suggests the HPV vaccine is highly effective in preventing penile, anal, and throat cancers in later life, Kepka says.
When Should I Get Vaccinated?
The HPV vaccine “produces the strongest immune response in preteens” and works best when given before any exposure to the virus, Kepka says. The CDC recommends routine vaccination to begin as early as 9 years old and through age 26 years if they were not vaccinated when younger. Some adults ages 27 through 45 years can get the HPV vaccine based on discussion with their doctor.
Common side effects are mild, ranging from headache or fever to pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site. Research indicates that the vaccine is long-lasting and its protection doesn’t lessen over time.
“I urge parents to talk to their child’s pediatrician as soon as possible about getting the vaccine,” Kepka says. “We simply can’t afford to miss any opportunity to halt this near-epidemic of HPV infections that could, and probably will, endanger the health of these children as they get older.”