“You’d think that when parents are told of a vaccine that could prevent future cancers in their children, they’d leap at the chance to protect them. Alas, that is hardly the case for a vaccine that prevents infections with cancer-causing human papillomavirus, or HPV. The vaccine, best given at age 11 to 12, is currently the most underutilized immunization available for children.

HPV is by far the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, and nearly every sexually active person becomes infected at some time in life. The virus in one or another of its variants causes more than 90 percent of cervical cancers, as well as most cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, penis and oropharynx, which includes the back of the throat, base of the tongue and tonsils. It also causes genital warts.

Every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, about 14 million Americans become infected with HPV, most of them teenagers or young adults, and a cancer caused by HPV is diagnosed in an estimated 17,600 women and 9,300 men.

Yet, when one of my sons was urged to get the HPV vaccine for his boys, ages 11 and 14, he replied, “Why? They’re not yet sexually active.” I reminded him that not all sex is consensual, and exposure to the virus does not require sexual penetration. However, his response reflects a common misunderstanding among millions of parents, and often their children’s doctors, of the value of the vaccine and the fact that it is most effective if given to preteenagers when the immune response is strongest and before they are exposed to an offending form of the virus.

But as of 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 21 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three doses of the HPV vaccine, whereas 88 percent of boys and girls had been vaccinated against tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis and 79 percent had gotten the meningococcal vaccine.”

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