A vaccine that stops cancers: The story of HPV
In 2006, a miracle vaccine became a reality. Targeting human papillomavirus (HPV), this vaccine only not prevents infections but also prevents cancers.
HPV is ubiquitous, it lives on our skin. About 170 strains have been identified, 40 can make us sick.
The vaccine protects against the most malign strains, the culprits of most cervical cancer, genital warts, genital and throat cancers. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease.
I tell my kids: When you're intimate with one person, you’re potentially intimate – in the form of viral (bacterial, fungal) acquisition – with all the sex partners this person has ever had.
Studies following college students showed after two years, new HPV infection occurred in 39% of women and 62% of men. Most of us (80%) will be infected sometime in our life.
Good news: We usually clear these infections ourselves (90% within two years).
But doctors can’t tell who can or cannot. Also, because early infections are asymptomatic, chronic infections with high-risk strains can, in decades, lead to cancer.
HPV vaccine boosts our immunity and prevents new infection, effectively. But it can't help an ongoing infection. Thus, it’s best to vaccinate young – age 11 to 12 (can start as early as age 9).
Then why did the FDA recently expand vaccine coverage to men and women up to the age 45?
Let me answer two common questions.
1. Why boys?
Sure, boys don’t get cervical cancer. But vaccines can protect them from getting genital warts and other HPV-related cancers.
CDC states, “HPV is estimated to cause nearly 35,000 cases of cancer in men and women every year in the U.S.” By stopping early infection, “HPV vaccination can prevent more than 32,000 of these cancers.” It’s impressive.
And by vaccinating boys, we protect their sex partners.
2. Why adults? Should you be concerned?
If you’re in a monogamous relationship with low chance of acquiring new viruses, vaccine won’t help.
But if you’re exposed to new sex partners – thus new viruses – HPV vaccine might help.
For those unvaccinated, ages 27 and older, HPV vaccine is “a shared decision” – a doctor’s buzzword for “let’s talk.”
HPV vaccine is not a moral debate/choice or government scam. HPV are viruses we live with. And for the Bonnie-and-Clyde strains, doctors can stop most early infections with a 25-gauge vaccine needle. HPV vaccine is medicine at its best. It’s civilization.
A good example: Australia offers free HPV vaccines (in Ohio, public health clinics will cover entitled teens). Australia is highly compliant with HPV screening and vaccination. In 20 years, it might become the first cervical-cancer-free country.
I can’t say the same about protecting U.S. teens (only 51% are properly vaccinated), but I'll try.
When it comes my kids, I have hang-ups. When they were learning to look both ways before crossing the street, they had also learned: Exercise, adequate sleep, eating lots of vegetables of different colors, composting, recycling, condoms, vaccines ...
Quirky? Yes. I laugh at myself. But for vaccine-preventable diseases, I leave nothing to chance.