About 79 million people in the U.S. are currently infected with HPV. In the long term, this virus increases the risk of several serious diseases, including cancers of the cervix, genitals and throat. Although a series of vaccines will help prevent infection, health experts are worried that immunization rates are too low.
Currently, there are only two vaccines that are known to prevent cancer. Hepatitis B shots can help decrease the likelihood of developing liver cancer, while the three-dose HPV series will help curb the incidence of several malignancies. However, the HPV immunization’s association with a sexually transmitted disease makes some parents uneasy about recommendations to have their children vaccinated. Still, these misgivings don’t make the HPV vaccine any less important. The key to increasing understanding of immunization lies in education about the HPV virus, as well as how inoculation does or doesn’t change the behavior of recipients.
Thousands are affected every year
There are more than 40 strains of HPV virus, which collectively are the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. About 14 million people are newly infected every year, and nearly everyone who is sexually active and not vaccinated will be infected at least once in a lifetime. While most people never develop any symptoms, others may be diagnosed with one of several diseases caused by the virus, including:
- Genital warts
- Head and neck cancer
- Anal cancer
- Penile cancer
- Cancers of the cervix, vulva or vagina
Every year, about 17,500 women and 9,300 men are diagnosed with a malignant disease linked to HPV. In fact, the viral infection is the most common cause of cervical cancer, which is the second most fatal form of cancer among women. This underscores the importance of the HPV vaccine, which public health leaders recommend be given as a three-dose vaccine once both boys and girls are 11 or 12 years of age.
Vaccine rates are low
Because HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, it is most effective when individuals receive it before they become sexually active. This fact makes many parents feel uneasy about the idea of immunizing their children because they are afraid it will encourage them to become sexually active at a younger age. This concern has led to lower levels of vaccination. By the end of 2012, only about one-third of girls ages 13 to 17 years had completed the three-dose HPV series. Given that the HPV vaccine is 93 percent effective against infection, coupled with the fact that these viruses can cause cancer, this is a worrisome trend.
However, a study published in the February 2014 issue of the journal Pediatrics revealed that teenage girls and young women don’t seem to start becoming sexually active earlier just because they’ve received the vaccine. This conclusion was based on more than 300 questionnaires given to girls between the ages of 13 and 21 years old. Results showed that, regardless of what the girls thought about HPV, getting vaccinated did not motivate them to change their sexual behavior.
If you’re a parent with adolescent children and you’re still uncertain about the HPV vaccine, consult a family health advisor, who can provide objective information about the risks and benefits of choosing or not choosing to immunize your children against these viruses.