Immunizations to control serious vaccine-preventable diseases are considered one of the greatest public health accomplishments of the 20th century. Research continues to make progress in unlocking the potential of vaccines in preventing and eliminating diseases, including cancer.
The most recent FDA-approved cancer control vaccine is the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, designed to prevent infection from HPV and ultimately prevent cancers associated with the infection. Immunization against HPV could prevent 40,000 cases of HPV-associated cancers every year in the U.S.
HPV is a common virus that can be transmitted skin-to-skin between individuals and infects most men and women at some point in their life. The immune system is effective in clearing the body of HPV infection but in some cases the infection remains, which can lead to the development of illnesses. These illnesses include genital warts, pre-cancerous cervical changes (dysplasia) or cancers of the cervix, penis, anus, rectum, and oropharynx (throat, tonsils).
HPV causes virtually all cases of cervical cancer and is responsible for more cancers than any other group of viruses. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection common among adolescents and young adults. Most HPV infections have no symptoms.
The reason the vaccine is recommended before adolescents become sexually active is because it is much more effective at a younger age and can ensure protection before likely exposure to these viruses. Vaccines mobilize the body’s natural defenses to fight infections and the HPV vaccine works best if given before there is any chance of exposure, when there is still time to build up immunity. The prevention of infection is ideal for the prevention of diseases, including cancer.
In 2006, the HPV vaccine became available to females, ages 9 to 26, and later, in 2010, the vaccine was also recommended for males of the same age group. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the HPV vaccine is routinely recommended for boys and girls at ages 11 to 12, but can be given as early as age nine. Health experts recommend a two-dose schedule for kids starting the vaccine at ages 9 through 14, and a three-dose schedule for those who start the series at ages 15 through 26. Under the three-dose schedule, the second dose of the HPV vaccine should be given 1-2 months after the first dose, and the third dose should be given six months after the first dose.
Studies show the HPV vaccine is fully effective for at least ten years. And research has shown the vaccine is safe with very few side effects. Individuals with a severe allergy to yeast or latex should not receive the vaccine. Talk to your child’s pediatrician for specific recommendations.
Despite the potential of the HPV vaccine to drastically reduce the number of HPV-related cancers and other diseases, the vaccines have not gained widespread use. After more than a decade of encouraging news about the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine, completion rates for the HPV vaccine series continues to hover around 48 percent in Maryland for adolescent girls and boys.
The more adolescents and young adults who complete HPV vaccination, the more beneficial the protection will be for the entire population. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the 21st century will be to dramatically reduce the number of HPV-related cancers.
You can find more information about HPV immunization at askAAMC.org/HPVvaccine.