Parents will go to great lengths to promote and protect their children’s health—feeding them nutritious foods, making sure they take their vitamins, keeping up with their medical check ups. But what if the parent “toolkit” could also include a mechanism for preventing cancer?
It already does. The HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine protects against virtually all cases of cervical cancer and the precancerous changes that can be found on Pap smears, the test that screens for cervical cancer. HPV is also the cause of some oral, genital, and anal cancers in both men and women.
The vaccine, which has been licensed for use in the United States for eight years, is recommended for boys and girls starting at age 11.
Two Vaccine Options
There are two HPV vaccines available: Gardasil, for males and females, which protects against four strains of HPV (two that cause cancer and two that cause genital warts) and Cervarix, for girls and women only, which protects against the two cancer-causing strains only.
When to Get the HPV Vaccine
Since the vaccine prevents infection with some HPV strains, it’s important to fully vaccinate prior to starting sexual intercourse (although people who are sexually active can still benefit from the vaccine). In addition, the immune response to the vaccine is better when given to kids in their tweens and early teens rather than later in adolescence or adulthood.
The HPV vaccine is safe and effective. Other than a feeling of dizziness or risk of fainting after vaccination, side effects are mild and include soreness or redness at the site of the injection. Both Gardasil and Cervarix are given as a three-dose series over six months.
In the United States, 20,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. A much greater number are found to have precancerous lesions that require removal using procedures such as freezing, laser treatments, or excision. Currently more than 50 percent of all people in the United States are infected with HPV during their lifetime.
To reduce the risk of HPV infection, having your children vaccinated during adolescence is the most important step you can take. HPV is another case where an “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Check the American Cancer Society for more information on HPV.