A vaccination during adolescence can prevent cancer later in life. During Cervical Cancer Awareness Month in January, Texas physicians want to encourage parents to get their adolescents vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV), the cause of almost all cervical cancers. Even unvaccinated older teens and young adults can benefit.
In 2016, more than 1,000 Texas women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer, and nearly 400 will die from the deadly disease, according to the Texas Cancer Registry. Sadly, Texas’ HPV vaccination rates are low: In 2014, only half (50.7 percent) of the state’s 13- to 17-year-old girls and a third of boys the same age (36.6 percent) had received one or more of the three recommended doses of HPV vaccine.
“When I have to tell one of my patients she has cervical cancer, I wish I could turn back the clock to encourage her to get vaccinated against HPV,” said obstetrician/ gynecologist Kimberly Carter, MD, of Austin. “That simple step of getting vaccinated can reduce the risk of a potentially life-threatening illness and a lot of medical testing, treatment, and emotional distress,” said Dr. Carter, who is a member of the Texas Medical Association’s (TMA’s) Be Wise — ImmunizeSM Physician Advisory Panel.
Besides causing cervical cancer, which affects women, HPV also can cause other increasingly common cancers that affect both women and men, including oropharyngeal cancer (affecting the throat and tonsils), anal cancer, and more. And HPV can cause genital warts.
HPV is the most common infection spread through intimate or sexual contact in the United States. The American Cancer Society says HPV can be passed from person to person during sex, as well as through skin-to-skin contact with an infected area of the body, such as hand-to-genital contact.
Almost all (80 percent) of sexually active people will have the virus sometime in their life. Most people with HPV won’t notice any problems, but some may develop symptoms years later. When HPV infections persist, they can lead to genital warts or cancer.
Like any shot, the HPV vaccine is most effective before the person is exposed to the virus. That is one reason doctors want young people to get the HPV vaccination — before exposure. Young girls and boys under age 14 benefit most from the shots because their bodies fight HPV best at that age. However, the vaccine can help even after the person becomes sexually active.
The HPV vaccination (three shots given over six months) is primarily recommended for 11- and 12-year-old girls, though girls as young as 9 years old and females up through age 26 can be vaccinated. Boys should get the shots, too: Doctors recommend 11- and 12-year-old boys get the vaccine, though males 9 through 21 years of age, even as old as age 26, might benefit.
Three HPV vaccinations are available, and all are safe and effective, said Dr. Carter. Two of the vaccines protect against genital warts. The newest HPV vaccine, HPV9, gives the most protection — against nine strains of HPV. Dr. Carter suggests patients talk with their doctor about which vaccination is best.
“If more people got the HPV vaccine, we could reduce the number of infections and ultimately reduce the risk of cervical cancer by two-thirds,” said Dr. Carter, who also is president of the Texas Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
TMA published an infographic (above) and a fact sheet about the importance of HPV vaccination, in English and Spanish.