That was the message Melinda Wharton, MD, MPH, acting director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, delivered to Travis County physicians last week in Austin. Dr. Wharton, in town for a statewide immunization conference, spoke to physicians about how they can communicate and encourage HPV vaccination for their young patients. HPV is short for human papillomavirus, which is known to cause several cancers.
“The HPV vaccine is cancer prevention,” Dr. Wharton stressed. “You would think we would not be struggling so much with getting vaccine coverage up, but the reality is coverage is not where it should be,” especially in relation to vaccination coverage for other diseases, said Dr. Wharton.
“HPV infection is common. Almost everybody will be infected at some point in their life with at least one type of HPV infection. Many millions of Americans are currently infected, and there are millions of new infections each year,” she said. (Travis County Medical Society estimates that in Travis County alone, more than 250,000 people are infected with HPV.)
“Fortunately, most infections clear … and most people never know they’ve been infected,” said Dr. Wharton. “But they don’t always clear, and sometimes — particularly when the infections are caused by some of the cancer-causing types [of HPV] — the results are cancers.”
Dr. Wharton told the crowd that the HPV virus causes 20,000 cancers in the United States each year. The most common cancer is cervical cancer in women, but HPV can cause penile cancer in men and oropharyngeal cancer (a type of throat cancer) in both men and women.
The HPV vaccine is recommended for girls and boys 11-12 years old, but can be given to teens, young women up to age 26, and young men up to age 21. The vaccine is meant to be given to patients well before they become sexually active, and — as an added benefit — the vaccine produces a more robust immune response during the preteen years, Dr. Wharton said.
“Some parents really strongly feel that their children are not at risk — that they will not be sexually active until marriage, or that they will not be exposed,” said Dr. Wharton. “But HPV is so common that almost everybody will be infected at some time.”
Dr. Wharton emphasized the need for physicians to champion the HPV vaccine to their patients as a cancer-preventing, life-saving vaccine. “As providers, we need to make that strong recommendation,” she said.