Dose of prevention
Vaccine can prevent HPV cancers
Decades ago when I was a youngster, a boy who lived a few houses down the street and was in my Boy Scout troop died of leukemia. Around that time my grandfather died of bladder cancer.
In those days we friends and family members tended to lump all cancers together, and the word “cancer” was spoken with dread as if it had such unlimited power that it would be wise not to arouse it by saying the word too loudly. Unfortunately, for millions in those days, cancer was deadly.
We are smarter now, thanks to years of hard work worldwide by medical researchers.
We know that “cancer” is a broad term for many forms of disease that have many different causes, treatments and outcomes. We know that there is much hope for many with a new diagnosis, and that there are millions of joyful cancer survivors who can tell you exactly how long they have been cancer-free. We know of things we can do to prevent some cancers, the best example being the elimination of any form of tobacco in our lives.
In 2006, when the first human papilloma virus (HPV) cancer prevention vaccine was introduced, there was much excitement about this opportunity to prevent thousands of cancers. We know that persistent infection with HPV can cause carcinomas of the cervix, as well as squamous cell cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, rectum, and oropharynx. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis shows that from 2008-2012, there were 142,000 cancers diagnosed in America that would have been prevented if those people had been vaccinated with HPV vaccine.
One hundred forty-two thousand preventable cancers!
More recent CDC data from 20132014 showed that almost 23 percent of adults — that’s more than one in five — have the type of HPV virus that put them at high risk for these cancers.
Gone are the days of whispering “cancer.” Now we need to holler. We should be shouting over and over again, “CANCER PREVENTION VACCINE,” but we are not, and the result is our HPV cancer prevention vaccine rates are nowhere near where they ought to be.
That’s true in Arkansas: Far too many cancers are not being prevented. One reason has to do with the words we use. Often I have incompletely called this vaccine the “human papilloma virus (HPV)” vaccine, but that doesn’t tell what this vaccine can do. It is far more accurate to call it the HPV cancer prevention vaccine.
One reason the words are so important is because childhood, beginning at age 11, is the best time to give this vaccine, which means parents make the decision for their children. They need to know the purpose of immunizations.
People don’t die of the virus, they die of the cancer. They don’t have surgery for the virus, they have surgery for the cancer. The purpose of the vaccine is to prevent cancers, and whether we are a parent, friend, doctor, or insurance company, we are giving incomplete information if we don’t say this vaccine is all about prevention of certain kinds of cancer.
There is an advantage to beginning this vaccine at age 11: only two doses (six months apart) are required. After age 15, three doses are required. My wife and I have a house full of young boys. I want them to be protected; and when they are mature young men, I want their loved ones to be protected. They will have no problem understanding that two shots are better than three.
And I promise you when the time comes for these boys to receive this vaccine, I am not going to be saying “vulva, vagina, penis, anus, rectum, or oropharynx.” I am going to be saying “cancer prevention” for some cancers. If they want to know more, they can ask their mother.