You’d think that when parents are told of a vaccine that could prevent future cancers in their children, they’d leap at the chance to protect them. Alas, that is hardly the case for a vaccine that prevents infections with cancer-causing human papillomavirus, or HPV. The vaccine, best given at age 11 to 12, is currently the most underutilized immunization available for children.
HPV is by far the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, and nearly every sexually active person becomes infected at some time in life. The virus in one or another of its variants causes more than 90 percent of cervical cancers, as well as most cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, penis and oropharynx, which includes the back of the throat, base of the tongue and tonsils. It also causes genital warts.
Every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, about 14 million Americans become infected with HPV, most of them teenagers or young adults, and a cancer caused by HPV is diagnosed in an estimated 17,600 women and 9,300 men.
Yet, when one of my sons was urged to get the HPV vaccine for his boys, ages 11 and 14, he replied, “Why? They’re not yet sexually active.” I reminded him that not all sex is consensual, and exposure to the virus does not require sexual penetration. However, his response reflects a common misunderstanding among millions of parents, and often their children’s doctors, of the value of the vaccine and the fact that it is most effective if given to preteenagers when the immune response is strongest and before they are exposed to an offending form of the virus.
But as of 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 21 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three doses of the HPV vaccine, whereas 88 percent of boys and girls had been vaccinated against tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis and 79 percent had gotten the meningococcal vaccine.
There are several explanations for the low rate of HPV immunization among young teens. One is that the vaccine is relatively new — it was first approved in 2006 — and expensive. At about $300 a dose, the three-dose series can approach $1,000 a child, although now, as with other government-recommended vaccines, it is covered by insurance with no co-pay, and the federal Vaccines for Children program provides free vaccination for children who are uninsured or underinsured, according to the American Cancer Society.
Three HPV vaccines have been developed, although only one, which protects against nine variants of the virus, now remains on the market. The C.D.C. has stated unequivocally that clinical trials have shown them all to be “very safe.”
Before being licensed in 2009, the vaccine called Cervarix, which protects against the two variants of HPV linked to cervical cancer, was studied in more than 30,000 females. The four-variant vaccine called Gardasil, licensed in 2006 for females and in 2009 for males, was studied in more than 29,000 recipients, and the newest nine-variant vaccine, called Gardasil 9, licensed in December 2014 and the only one now sold, was studied in more than 15,000 males and females. To order Gardasil, join Continuum’s Buying Alliance today!
To learn more about HPV immunization rates, read the full article here.