By Jenna O’Donnell
Dear parents, doctors would like you to consider an effective cancer vaccine for your children that promises to protect them throughout their lives. The catch? This is also a vaccine for a sexually transmitted infection.
Gardasil 9, the vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, is widely available and proven effective, but about half of American children are not receiving it. Some doctors believe the lukewarm reception to the vaccine has to do with parents’ reservations about it. Part of the challenge, doctors say, is making the case for parents to vaccinate their children for a sexually transmitted infection long before they expect to be worrying about that aspect of their sons’ or daughters’ lives.
Joel Edman, M.D., chair of Pediatrics at Riverview Medical Center, says it is something that parents should start thinking about around age 10, which is about when he brings up the HPV vaccine with his patients’ moms and dads.
“Because it’s a virus that’s sexually transmitted, parents think ‘That’s not a concern. Why so soon?’” he said. “Studies have shown that the vaccine is actually much more effective when it’s given at a younger age.”
The vaccine can be administered from age 9 up to 45, but Edman says 11 is the optimal age. For children, whose immune systems are stronger, Gardasil 9 only requires two doses, where older teens and adults usually need three doses. This most recent iteration of the HPV vaccine, which protects against nine types of HPV, has proven almost 100 percent effective in preventing the cancers associated with the highly common infection.
About 80 million Americans are currently infected with some form of HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The infection is so common nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives. The infection, which is easily spread through casual contact, directly causes cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, penis, head and neck.
Jason Konner, M.D., an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Monmouth, treats many of the cancers that arise from HPV. He noted that the cancers are particularly nasty with unpleasant treatments that include radiology and chemotherapy.
“I’m somebody who sees the consequences of not getting (the HPV vaccine),” said Konner. “It’s pretty awful. This is something that is a very clear benefit.” Konner prefers to think of the HPV vaccine as a cancer vaccine, one that has been proven safe and effective through large and lengthy clinical trials. Edman uses a similar approach in talking to his patients about the vaccine.
“The message that we try to give to parents is that it’s cancer prevention because we know that HPV causes more than 90 percent of cervical cancer,” he said. “It’s a fully preventable cancer that we are trying to address.”
In families with high cancer risk the HPV vaccine might be less daunting. Pamela Zaborney, of Middletown, said she chose to get her son vaccinated with that in mind.
“I definitely think with cancer prevention it was a positive,” she said, but added that other parents had to weigh their feelings on the vaccine for themselves. “I wouldn’t recommend anything to other parents. It’s their own choice.”
Acknowledging some of the trepidation around vaccines, Konner urges people, particularly parents, to read up on the HPV vaccine before deciding what is right for them.
“I think with any treatment decision the risks and the benefits must be weighed,” Konner said. “So many of our day-to-day activities are much less safe than this vaccine. I think that people hyperfocus on the risk and don’t think of the benefit to their lives.”
For parents considering the vaccine for their children, Konner suggests they also think of getting it for themselves. Though more effective in children, he says it is a vaccine that everyone should have.
“I would encourage skeptics to go to CDC website and look at the data,” he said. “Tens of millions of vaccinations have been given. The effectiveness of this vaccine is nearly 100 percent and the downsides of HPV are so well described: 14 million cases a year, thousands of deaths a year just from cervix cancer, which doesn’t include other cancers. There’s a lot of people dying and many of them are very young people.”
This article was first published in the March 7-March 13, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.