I hear stories daily about parents who would do anything within their capabilities to save their children's lives: covering a swimming pool with special canvas, using a seatbelt, or even donating part of a liver. But would you have your child vaccinated if you knew it would prevent cancer?
The answer here in Summit County, as in other parts of the country, is mixed. But the facts are in: the Gardasil and Cevarix vaccines, both which involve a series of three shots over six months, have been proven to prevent two to four out of 40 different types of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Two of the four preventable HPV strains cause cancers of the cervix, vagina and vulva (in women); anus or throat cancer (in women and men); and penile cancer (men).
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control reports that more than half of sexually active men and women are infected with HPV at some time in their lives, and 80 percent of women have been infected by age 50. About 20 million Americans currently have HPV and about six million more get infected each year.
HPV is spread through almost any kind of sexual contact. People can have HPV even if years have passed since they last had sex and even if they've only had one sex partner. One of the most important things to know about HPV is that most infections don't cause any symptoms and go away on their own. In 90 percent of cases, the body's immune system clears HPV naturally within two years. But, sometimes, HPV infections remain unresolved and cause genital warts or cancer. For women, an HPV test can indicate which strain exists and what treatment protocol, if any, might be necessary. In men, there is no test for HPV.
For those who choose to be sexually active, condoms may lower the risk of HPV infection. To be most effective, they should be used with every sex act, from start to finish. Condoms may also lower the risk of developing HPV-related diseases, such as genital warts and cervical cancer. But HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom, so they may not fully protect against it.
So why do parents hesitate with these anti-cancer vaccines? We have identified three primary reasons. First, there are some who maintain skepticism about all vaccines, even in light of now-disproved studies related to the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine (MMR) and autism. This particular hesitation has endangered all children. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control issued an emergency health advisory for measles, a disease officially declared eradicated in the United States in 2000.
Secondly, we find some parents believe that because the Cevarix and Gardasil vaccines prevent "sex-related" cancers it might encourage early sexual behavior. There have been no studies to support this assertion. Would a tetanus shot encourage your child to dance on rusty nails? Following closely behind the sexuality connection is denial: "My child would never get that!" Certainly, it's hard to imagine that the little girl you just taught to swim will, one day, become a sexual being. But by then it may be too late.
Finally, we are discovering that many parents simply don't know about these anti-cancer vaccines. Few among my client base request them proactively. We educate all of our parents and clients about these life-saving prevention tools because we feel they offer a lifelong gift. Both vaccination cycles occur over a six-month process: one shot today; the next in one to two months after dose one; and the third dose occurs six months after dose one. The vaccines work best prior to any sexual activity, which likely matches how your insurance company pays for it: children and young adults ages 9 to 26.
To expound on the dangers of HPV, note its iron-clad connection to cervical cancer: fully 70 percent of cases are caused by HPV infections. Cervical cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women around the world. In the United States, about 12,000 women get cervical cancer every year and about 4,000 are expected to die from it. By the time a woman becomes symptomatic it is frequently too late to prevent hysterectomy or worse. I will ask the question differently: If there was a vaccine to prevent breast cancer, would you give it to your children?
There are emotional tolls, as well. I spend a fair amount of time outside of regular office hours talking to clients about what it means to have a positive HPV test or an abnormal pap smear. Worries expressed ranging from "feeling dirty" to the real fear of cancer are among the ups and downs that accompany these unfortunate test results.
So teach your kids to swim: Drowning is the second leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 14 years. In 2008 the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that trampoline injuries sent an estimated 100,000 victims, mostly kids, to the emergency room. Keep your drugs stored safely and in child-resistant packaging because 165 kids end up in hospitals daily from poisoning. And please know that there are vaccines that can prevent cancer.
Jessica Johnston, RN, MSN, FNP is a board certified family nurse practitioner at High Country Healthcare's OB/GYN Specialists' office in Frisco. Jessica enjoys caring for patients across the life span, but has a particular interest in caring for women with a focus on family planning, routine gynecology, adolescent health, and menopause management.