By Eileen West, MD, FACP, CCD
Eileen West, MD and Associates | Ms.Medicine
A study out of the United Kingdom has found that cervical pre-cancer rates have dropped 88% in the past decade. The cause of this dramatic drop is most likely due to compliance with receiving the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine across the country. However, in the United States, not as many people who should get the vaccine do get the vaccine.
This can be for a variety of reasons: Individuals may not know the vaccine is available (and safe) or that HPV is linked to cancer. Some parents may worry that giving their pre-teen a vaccine that protects against a common sexually transmitted disease is the equivalent of a green light for their child to start having sex.
In fact, one of the biggest misconceptions about the vaccine is that it’s about sex, but it’s actually about preventing cancer.
HPV is a common sexually transmitted disease. In fact, it’s estimated that nearly everyone will be infected with some strain of HPV in their lifetime. Most of the time, infections clear up on their own and do not cause cancer. However, at least a dozen types of HPV can lead to one of six different types of cancer, including:
- Head and neck
There are no signs or symptoms of high-risk HPV, which is the type that’s most likely to lead to cancer. Regular cervical cancer screenings, including a PAP test, can detect precancerous cells on the cervix. These changes are monitored or removed by your physician.
When to get vaccinated
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that boys and girls around age 11 or 12 get vaccinated. The vaccine is a series, which means it given over multiple doses. For boys and girls under the age of 15, it’s given over two doses; the second is administered six months after the first dose. For those age 15 and older, they are given three doses: the second shot is administered 1-2 months after the initial vaccine and the third dose is given six months after the first shot.
The CDC also recommends that all individuals under the age of 26 get vaccinated with a “catch-up” vaccine. And recently, those guidelines have shifted to encourage women age 45 and younger to receive the HPV vaccine.
Why to get the HPV vaccine
Research offers compelling evidence on the importance of asking your provider about the HPV vaccine, whether it’s for yourself or a child. The study of out of the UK demonstrates the impact on the health of our community when there is widespread adoption of the vaccine. Even here in the United States, HPV infections and cervical precancers have dropped significantly since the HPV vaccine has been available.
The CDC estimates that the HPV vaccine could prevent at least 32,000 of the 35,000 cancers linked to HPV. A couple of shots is also much easier than treating HPV-related cancer later in life.
Talk to your doctor about your questions regarding the HPV vaccine. Together, you can make a decision that’s right for your health and the health of your family.