An aggressive national policy of immunizing tweens, teens, and young adults against human papillomavirus and screening for evidence of prior HPV infection has Australian cancer researchers and public health professionals optimistic that cervical cancer will be eliminated on that continent in the next 10 years. Nina Avramova reports that Australia is “the global front runner in cervical cancer prevention” and will become the first country to vanquish the highly preventable cancer:
An estimated 99.7% of cervical cancer cases are caused by infection with Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a group of viruses that spread though sexual intercourse and skin-to-skin contact around the genitals.
Australia was one of the first countries to introduce a national HPV vaccination program for girls in 2007, and it has since been extended to achieve high vaccination coverage across both sexes, according to the study. Its National Cervical Cancer Screening Program began in 1991.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), half a million women around the world are diagnosed with HPV-associated cervical cancer annually, making it the fourth most common cancer among women. 250,000 are expected to die from the disease in 2018. The highest rates occur mostly in developing countries, especially in Africa. In the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 12,845 new cases of cervical cancer in 2015; 4,175 women died from the disease that year. Pennsylvania’s rate is 7.4 per 100,000 women, below the national average of 8 per 100,000. (Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s overall cancer rate for both sexes is 3rd highest in the nation behind Kentucky and Delaware — well above the national average.)
Can the United States match Australia in its commitment and success in eradicating cervical cancer? That mostly depends whether or not HPV vaccine rates rise. Ever since the FDA approved it in 2006, 200 million doses of HPV vaccine have been given worldwide, building a remarkably consistent record of efficacy and safety. Over on his fantastic* website Vaxopedia, fellow pediatrician Vincent Iannelli, M.D. offers up evidence to reassure vaccine-hesitant parents about the importance of HPV vaccine and the wisdom of immunizing girls and boys between the ages of 11-12 years:
- HPV is not rare – in fact, it is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. While many infections do go away on their own, spontaneously, others linger and can cause cervical cancer.
- HPV doesn’t just cause cervical cancer though, it can also cause vaginal, vulvar, penile, and anal, and oropharyngeal cancer, and genital warts.
- boys need the HPV vaccine too, as there are around 11,000 cases of HPV induced cancer in men each year, including anal cancer and cancers of the mouth/throat and penis.
- you want your child to get the HPV vaccine before they are having sex, to prevent them from ever getting infected with HPV, which is why it is routinely recommended when kids are 11 to 12 years old. That they are not sexually active yet is the whole point! As with other vaccines, if you continue to wait, you might eventually wait too long, although you can still get the vaccine if they are already sexually active, even if they are already infected with HPV, as it might protect them against another strain that they don’t have yet.
- getting the HPV vaccine does not make it more likely that a teen will have sex.
- using condoms will not prevent all HPV infections. HPV can also spread through nonpenetrative sexual contact.
- while fainting might occur after vaccination, it is also not uncommon after other vaccinations and medical procedures, especially in teens. It is not a specific issue caused by the HPV vaccine or any vaccine, for that matter.
- the HPV vaccine does not cause primary ovarian failure, venous blood clots, behavior problems, multiple sclerosis, autoimmune disorders, or any of the other serious side effects you read on the Internet
- while the HPV vaccine won’t protect against all forms of HPV, it protects against the forms that are most likely to cause cervical cancer. Just two types of HPV, types 16 and 18, cause 70% of cervical cancers, and another two types, types 6 and 11, cause 90% of genital warts. All are included in the Gardasil vaccine and Cervarix includes the types most likely to cause cervical cancer.
Only two doses of HPV vaccine are needed if they are given before the 15th birthday. Once teenagers turn 15 years old, three doses are required if they haven’t yet been immunized against it.
I made sure my own three kids were vaccinated against HPV as soon as they were eligible to receive it when each turned 11. Between the three, they received 9 shots in total and had one sore arm on one occasion. Now I know — and they know also — that they won’t get infected with HPV and won’t transmit it to someone else either. No infection, no genital warts, no transmission of cancer-causing HPV, no HPV-associated cancer. That’s a pretty good deal for one sore arm (once)!
*Seriously, check out and bookmark Vaxopedia. It is a wonderful resource — a compendium of evidence-based studies and articles describing the history, rationale, efficacy, safety, and debunked myths about all vaccines.