There is a vaccine that can prevent cancer.
This preventative measure against a life-threatening disease is widely available in the U.S., yet only half of adolescents are vaccinated against the Human papillomavirus (HPV). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), four out of 10 girls and six out of 10 boys nationwide have not started the HPV vaccine series.
The HPV vaccine should be required in the same way that Illinois enforces vaccines for hepatitis, tetanus, measles and a host of other atrocious diseases. Colleges also have their own set of vaccine requirements, giving them the clout to increase HPV vaccination rates and potentially save the lives of their students.
The problem is that HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), making the vaccine taboo in many sectors of society. Parents get so worked up over the mere possibility of their children having sex in the future that they are failing to protect them.
As a women’s health expert, DePaul professor Linda Graf absolutely supports the vaccine.
“It’s a vaccine that prevents cancer, people,” Graf said. “That’s what it’s about. Why would you not recommend that to somebody? But that’s not how it’s being framed. It’s being framed that it’s preventing a sexually transmitted infection, so then you have the word sex in there and people get really upset about that.”
Introduced a decade ago, most of us are familiar with the HPV vaccine by now. Commonly known as the Gardasil shot, this three-series injection is recommended for girls and boys around the time they turn 11 years old. The vaccine helps protect against not only cervical cancer but also anal, penile and oral cancers caused by the STI. Previously only recommended for females, the vaccine has been suggested for males since 2011.
HPV is startlingly common, as the CDC said nearly 79 million Americans are infected. This means roughly one in four Americans currently have some form of the STI today. There are over 100 strains of HPV, most of which never show symptoms and your body gets rid of the virus on its own. However, other cases are much more serious and can ultimately lead to death. The American Cancer Society estimates that over 4,000 women will die from cervical cancer this year. That is thousands of deaths that could be prevented if the HPV vaccine was mandatory.
“The vaccine is working on cervical cancer and it’s working on head and neck cancers too for people who get HPV from having oral sex, ” Graf said. “This is huge.”
A study released by the CDC in February said that the vaccine has indeed cut cervical cancer rates in half among girls ages 14 to 19, despite lower than ideal vaccination rates.
DePaul health communications professor Elisse Foster compares getting the HPV vaccine to wearing your seat belt in the car — it just makes sense from a public health standpoint. Foster offered suggestions as to how physicians could convince more parents to vaccinate their kids.
“I think probably making some analogies to other sorts of things we do to protect ourselves [will help increase vaccination rates]and to try to eliminate the stigma or awkwardness around the fact that HPV is a sexually transmitted infection,” Foster said.
Besides moral issues involving the sexuality of children, there are also safety concerns about the potential side effects of the vaccine. One of the most cited arguments against vaccines is that they trigger autoimmune diseases. However, Graf noted that there is no scientific data that correlates the HPV vaccine to any long-term negative side effects. Countless studies hold that the vaccine is safe.
“There’s nothing out there that’s glaring that says it’s going to hurt you or hurt your future pregnancies,” Graf said.
Pre-med DePaul junior Camille Khalily understands the importance of vaccines. “If you don’t vaccinate your children then you have no business being a parent,” Khalily said.
As Foster points out, adolescents usually take a passive role in their healthcare decisions. This leaves the ultimate decision to guardians, who often worry that approving the HPV vaccine is the equivalent of giving their children permission to have sex. Studies have also been conducted that find this theory to be groundless. The fact of the matter is that the vaccine has not caused an increase in adolescent sex.
“We have data saying that children who got the vaccine are no more likely to engage in sex at an earlier age than other normal teens who weren’t vaccinated,” Graf said. “We have that data that says the vaccine doesn’t encourage them and it doesn’t discourage them, teens are going to go do what they want to do when they’re ready to do it.”
Beyond the role of parents, the medical world holds the responsibility of changing the discourse surrounding the vaccine. Better education and marketing are vital to convincing parents and reinforcing pediatricians in favor of the HPV vaccine. This vaccine should be communicated to parents in the same way as the polio vaccine is — as a way to prevent a horrible disease. Parents should not be allowed to refuse their children the luxury of cancer prevention.