Ask anyone battling cancer if they would’ve agreed to a vaccination that prevents cancer and you’ll get an immediate “YES!” from practically all of them. A vaccine that prevents cancer has been on the world’s collective medical wish list since vaccinations were first developed. Lucky for those of us alive today, there is a vaccine that prevents many forms of cancer but, instead of being embraced with open arms and long lines at the nearest clinic, the HPV vaccine has been met with fear and scorn. On-going studies suggest a change in the conversation surrounding the vaccination may be needed to stop the HPV vaccine from being America’s most misunderstood cancer-fighting tool.
Cancer, HPV, and Its Vaccine
The human papillomavirus (HPV) infects 14 million Americans every year, making it the most widespread sexually transmitted disease in the US. Some people have the infection for years, never experience symptoms, but are contagious nevertheless. Thinking they are free of disease, they pass it along to sex partners who, in turn, may pass it along, too. The virus can be spread via all forms of sex – genital, oral, and anal.
When left untreated or poorly treated, the lingering virus can become cancerous. The cancers caused by the HPV are the only cancers known to be caused by a virus and therefore the only cancers that can be prevented by a vaccination. The HPV causes:
- Virtually all forms of cervical cancer.
- 95% of all anal cancers.
- 70% of all throat and neck cancers.
- Substantial numbers of cancer of the penis, vagina, and vulva.
Fortunately, vaccinations administered before first exposure to the virus makes infection highly unlikely but it also protects against the cancers HPV causes. To be most effective against infection over a lifetime, the HPV vaccine (like all others), must be given before exposure to the virus. This need for pre-exposure vaccination seems to be a major reason for the reluctance surrounding the vaccine.
Who Benefits Most from the HPV Vaccination
The HPV vaccine first hit the market about a decade ago. It was expected to be highly popular, a cancer-preventing dream come true, but the current vaccination rate leaves much to be desired. For the best protection that lasts a lifetime, adolescents who have not yet become sexually active should be vaccinated. Doing so protects them later, when, as sexually active adults, they face the most risk of infection. It is estimated that universal vaccination would save as many as 30,000 lives from cancer every year.
To vaccinate children, parental consent is required. That’s one roadblock to universal vaccination. Many parents fear giving a young teen a vaccination to prevent an STD will only promote sexual exploration.
Other parents shun as many vaccinations as possible, citing religious and philosophical reasons as well as environmental and medical reasons to avoid them. Many parents simply do not know the vaccine exists or who should be vaccinated when. Still others claim vaccines, including the HPV vaccine, are the tools of a conspiracy to increase the flow of money into the already-deep pockets of Big Pharma.
When Vaccination Becomes Law
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all children 11 and 12 years old get the HPV vaccination. In the District of Columbia (DC), Rhode Island, and Virginia, the HPV vaccine is required by law for all students entering 6th or 7th grade. Texas tried a similar mandate in 2007 but it was quickly overturned as an outrage against young innocents.
All states require vaccinations for one disease or another for school children of all ages throughout their time in the public school system. All vaccinations are met with resistance from some parents but the backlash against the HPV vaccine specifically involves more resistant parents than all other childhood vaccines.
To learn more about the parental mindset driving the vaccination rate, a team of researchers from various facilities in the US recruited 1,501 parents to complete an online survey about the vaccine. The survey respondents were:
- From all 50 states and DC.
- Had one or more children 11 to 17 years old.
- Represented a wide range of income and education levels.
- Most were mothers.
- 70% were white.
- 46% of them had authorized at least one (out of a series of three) doses of the HPV vaccine for their child.
Questions that addressed thoughts and awareness of the HPV vaccine indicated:
- Half believed the HPV vaccine is at least as important as the meningococcal and Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis [whooping cough]) vaccines that are also recommended for adolescents.
- 60% did not believe the vaccine prevents cervical cancer.
- 25% believed the vaccine causes long-term health complications.
- One third thought the vaccine is all about boosting profits for doctors and drug companies.
- One third claimed lack of information keeps them from vaccinating their children.
When asked about mandatory vaccination laws, 21% agreed such a law is “a good idea” but 54% disagreed. When an opt-out provision was added to the law, however, the numbers reversed. If parents could opt out, 57% considered vaccination laws a good idea but only 21% disagreed. Disagreement was strongest among parents in the Midwest and those who felt the vaccine was profit driven.
Parents Not Getting Enough Information
Two other recent studies indicate parents are not getting enough information to make a comfortable decision about vaccinating their children.
One study of 34,478 children 13 to 17 years old found large gaps in the information parents received from healthcare providers about the value of the HPV vaccine. Child’s gender, household socioeconomics, race / ethnicity, and region of residence were all found to be strong indicators of vaccination rates.
The other study also found parents of boys were less likely to be informed about the vaccine and their vaccination rates were lower than girls’. Other findings include physicians were more likely to recommend the vaccine to parents of girls than of boys and many parents did not know best protection comes when a full series of three doses is given.
Calo, William A, et al. "Parents' Support for School-Entry Requirements for Human Papillomavirus Vaccination: A National Study." Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention / American Association for Cancer Research (2016). Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
Mohammed, KA, et al. "Disparities in Provider Recommendation of Human Papillomavirus Vaccination for U.S. Adolescents." PubMed. Journal of Adolescent Health / Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine (Elsevier Inc.), Aug. 2016. US National Library of Medicine / National Institutes of Health. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
Hemphill, Sandy. "Stress, Depression Intensify HPV Infection, Cancer Risk." babyMed. BabyMed.com, May 2016. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
By Sandy Hemphill, Contributing Writer, BabyMed