Sep 14, 2021 12:00 PM

Author: Doug Dollemore

Although children younger than 12 years old aren’t eligible to receive COViD-19 vaccinations, pediatricians say that other routine adolescent immunizations should continue to be administered as scheduled. They say these vaccinations are vital to protect your children, their friends, and classmates against some of the most common ailments affecting young Americans including meningitis, tetanus, diphtheria, and cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Yet, during the pandemic, many of these needed childhood vaccinations are being overlooked. Overall, 11.5 million fewer doses of these vaccines have been administered to adolescents since the first cases of COVID-19 in early 2020.

Human Papillomavirus Vaccine

One of the most important of these vaccines 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, Ph.D., 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 and 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: 

About 45,000 people are diagnosed with these cancers each year in the US, 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.

Less information is available about men, in part, because fewer of them have been vaccinated. However, research suggests HPV vaccine is highly effective in preventing penile, anal and throat cancers in later life, Kepka says.

When should I Get Vaccinated?

HPV vaccine “produces the strongest immune response in preteens” and works best when given before any exposure to the virus, Kepka says. So, pediatricians recommend that the HPV vaccines should be given between the ages of 9 to 12. Women up to age 26 and men up to age 21 can receive it as well, but it is less effective after those ages.

Common side effects are mild, ranging from headache or fever to pain, redness or swelling at the injection site. Research indicates 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.”

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