January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, a month that has brought more promising news about cervical cancer over the years. Studies have found the vaccine against the cancer-causing human papillomavirus to be highly effective in combating the virus, which could mean drastically reducing the numbers of cases of related cancers.
According to the World Health Organization, of the 100 or so types of HPV, 13 put women at higher risk of cervical cancer; in fact, just two strains of the virus cause 70% of such cancers.
More than 13,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer in 2018, the American Cancer Society estimates, and more than 4,000 will die of the disease.
We have a way to drastically reduce those numbers, through the HPV vaccine, which is best taken in two doses by preteens and teenagers, both male and female. Unfortunately, in most states, the rates of HPV vaccination are much lower than others in the childhood vaccination schedule, and in Texas it’s sadly lower. Nationwide, only 60 percent of teenagers have gotten at least one shot, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last August, but in Texas, the number is only 49.3 percent.
Why so low? People believe many things about HPV and the vaccine against it that simply aren’t true. So this seems like the right time to list five important facts about HPV, and how different they are from the myths that keep so many parents from protecting their children from cancer.
The HPV vaccine is for boys as well as girls. Because of its connection with cervical cancer, people seem to think that only girls should be immunized, and in fact, during its earlier years, public health officials weren’t talking about its importance for boys. But HPV causes more than cervical cancer; it also can cause cancers of the mouth, throat, rectum and penis. In addition, when both men and women are free from HPV, they won’t pass it to one another.
The HPV vaccine has been found very safe. Stories find their way around quickly around social media, claiming that one teen or another has suffered terrible consequences from the vaccine. Of course, we cannot know what happened in these cases, but they generally are spread without medical documentation showing that they’re true. The vaccine is continually monitored for safety, and the records don’t back up the notion of a dangerous vaccine, though of course in extremely rare cases, there can be a serious reaction to any vaccine. There have been mild reactions such as fever, headache and fatigue. One thing is certain: cancers caused by HPV are far more dangerous than the vaccine.
Being vaccinated doesn’t change teens’ sexual behavior. Some parents are concerned that if they have their children vaccinated, they’re encouraging teenagers to have sex. But a 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found that vaccinated teens were no more likely to engage in sexual activity. They found this by examining medical records for evidence of sexual activity, such as teens seeking contraceptive counseling, being treated for sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy. Vaccinated teens were no more likely than unvaccinated teens to have any of that in their medical records.
The vaccine cannot cause people to get HPV. It’s not made from live virus, or even dead virus. Rather, it’s made from proteins that resemble the virus, so that our immune system makes antibodies against the virus.
It’s dangerous for people to wait to get the vaccine until after they’re sexually active. It’s important to get the vaccine before being exposed to HPV. Because even a first sexual encounter can be with an infected partner, waiting is risky.
Going forward with facts instead of myths, we have a chance to give the next generations of men and women healthier lives. But we need to get started now.
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