A Vaccine to Prevent Cancer – Is It Safe?
As a parent and a physician, I spend a fair amount of time dreaming about a world free of cancer. While that dream is far from reality, every day we are making new progress in the fight against cancer. And the great news is, there is a vaccine that is safe, effective, readily available and prevents certain types of cancer. So, why aren’t parents lining up around the block for this vaccine for their children? Well, it’s a little complicated and I will do my best to persuade you that you should be on this bandwagon.
We have two vaccines that prevent infection with the virus that causes cervical, anal, vaginal, vulvar and oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) cancers. This virus is called Human Papilloma Virus or HPV. Infection with the HPV strains that cause genital warts and cancers are generally acquired through sexual contact. Many parents, understandably, feel a bit squeamish with the idea that their kids will be someday involved in sexual relationships. It is, though, quite likely to happen eventually. In fact, about 4 out of 5 adults test positive for having had an HPV infection at some point in their lives. So, it is very likely that your kids are going to be exposed to this virus … someday.
It is believed that vaccination against HPV would prevent about 7,000 HPV-associated cancers in the United States each year in men and about 15,000 HPV-associated cancers in the United States in women. The vaccines, called Gardasil™ and Cervarix™, are very safe. The Gardasil™ vaccine also includes vaccination against the HPV strains that cause genital warts. Both vaccines are shots and require three doses to complete the series.
It is recommended that boys and girls start HPV vaccination at age 11 or 12. Once a person has been infected with HPV, the vaccine is less effective. So, we recommend this vaccine to be given long before sexual activity usually begins. As well, the vaccine appears to generate the strongest antibody response when given at this age, compared to an older age.
I hope that you will take this opportunity to learn more about HPV vaccination. If you have additional questions, your pediatrician is a great source of information. The Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC) has helpful fact sheets and FAQ’s as well.
Let’s do our kids a favor and stamp out this type of preventable cancer.