When Ebola was making headlines worldwide, many people asked if there was a vaccine to fight it. No vaccine was available, but it seemed many among us were ready and willing to take a shot against Ebola, a disease that killed many people in underdeveloped nations, but just two people in the United States.
Ironically, vaccines are readily available for other diseases, which are quite common, and yet we do not use them enough. We ignore what is right in front of us and could save our children’s lives.
One example is the widely available vaccine to stop genital human papillomavirus, also known as HPV. The most common sexually transmitted disease,
HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, which kills more than 4,000 women a year in the U.S. HPV is a scary disease because people don’t always know that they have it. There are no symptoms and people can “catch” the virus when they are young and healthy. Like other viruses, their body may fight it off — but not always. HPV can live unnoticed in their bodies for years.
Cancers caused by HPV may start much later — in the mouth, throat, or the “private parts” of their bodies. For women, that’s usually the cervix, vagina or vulva; for men, it might be the penis or the anus. Because it is deeply internal, cervical cancer can be dangerously advanced before it is detected.
Though the virus often is spread among adolescents and young adults through genital or oral-genital contact, the cancers are diagnosed 10 or 15 years later, often when those once young people have become parents to their own children.
The HPV vaccine, available at most pediatricians offices and clinics, is very effective — almost 90 percent — if all three doses are given to adolescent boys and girls ages 11 and 12. Yet we don’t give it often enough. Less than half of our teens have received even one dose! The theory as to why our young people aren’t being given this vaccine is because some people think that this vaccine, which prevents people from contracting a virus that causes a deadly cancer, is linked to sex. However, kids — even good kids — grow up and eventually become adults. And the fact is, two-thirds of the population will be diagnosed with HPV at some point in their lives.
The truth is, at some point, young people do start to have sex, whether that is in college or when they fall in love, and of course after marriage. We don’t know if their partners have HPV. Don’t we want them to get protection before that happens?
As a pediatrician, I ask parents all the time, “Don’t you want to be a grandparent? Not now, of course, but someday. We all do! Well, when that happens, we want to know that the mother or father of our grandchildren does not have an HPV-related cancer. We don’t want our grandchildren to go through that. So let’s give the HPV vaccine well before our child is exposed to the virus. It protects against 70 percent of those cancers.”
What parent wouldn’t want to do that? What future grandparent?
The HPV vaccine is as safe as any other vaccine. That means there can be side effects, but most are pretty minimal, such as pain and redness at the site of the shot. A few people may experience a headache, dizziness or fainting, but the majority do not complain about any problems.
There are two types of vaccine — Gardasil and Cervarix. Both provide protection against HPV-related cancers. Gardasil is for both males and females and also protects against some strains of genital warts.
When we fight against cancer, or any serious disease, it is best to weigh the risk against the benefit. In this case, reducing the risk of future cancer to our children is worth the risk of a needle poke and a sensitive explanation from a doctor and a parent that while we still expect them to behave responsibly now, we want them to be protected for a long time to come.
Judy Schaechter, MD, MBA, is the interim chair of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and the chief of service at
Holtz Children’s Hospital, located at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center. For more information about Holtz Children’s Hospital and its services, visit HoltzChildrensHospital.org or call 305- 585-KIDS.