By Mia Van Eken, D.O., FACOG
It’s a hot topic, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. As a parent, choosing whether or not to have you child vaccinated most often involves the conversation of sexuality, since HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus. Let’s face it, it’s not an easy subject for anyone.
What is HPV?
HPV is a virus spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact and infects the moist membranes that line the body like the throat, mouth, anus and cervix.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 90 percent of infections never develop symptoms or health problems and ultimately goes away on its own; about 70 percent clear up within 12 months as the body’s immune system kills off the infection on its own. The virus typically does not present any symptoms so most infected persons do not realize they are infected or passing it on to their partner. In the rare occurrence that the virus persists, it can cause:
Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP), a rare condition in which warts grow in the throat.
Other genital cancers as well as oropharyngeal cancer (a type of head and neck cancer)
Who is At Risk?
With HPV being the main cause of cervical cancer, the common thought is that HPV only affects women. The virus causes about 19,000 cancers in women every year, but statistics show that vaccinating boys and men ages 9-26 can prevent more than 40,000 cancer-related deaths over the next century.
HPV currently is estimated to infect young men 20 years of age and older at rates between 65 and 93 percent in high-risk populations and up to 45 percent among lower-risk populations according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women will get it at some point in their lifetime. The virus not only causes cervical cancer in women, but also anal and penile cancers, cancers of the mouth, nose, throat and genital warts.
A Pap smear can detect cervical cancer in women. In cases where HPV causes other cancers, it has often gone unnoticed for many years. For this reason, protection against HPV in the form of the vaccine is crucial. Recommended for preteen boys and girls ages 11 or 12, the vaccine is also available for men and women up to ages 21 and 26, respectively.
Cervarix and Gardasil are the two types of vaccinations for HPV. Cervarix is for females only, and Gardasil can be used for both sexes. Both are given in a series of three shots over the course of six months and are only effective after all three doses. Most doctors recommend the vaccine for preteens because the body needs time to develop an immune response before sexual activity in order to work most effectively. Vaccinating your preteen does not mean they are ready for sex, but it’s important to protect them against HPV before the topic ever even comes up.
Talking about STD prevention and HPV also serves as a prevention technique. It is recommended parents start having conversations with their children as they enter middle school. Begin with generic topics. Ask them what they have heard, what they know or understand about the subject, and open the door for questions. This builds trust and open dialogue between parents and their children. We should not shy away from this process. It can reinforce the values and information regarding sexuality that we have given to our children. If you are uncomfortable, talk to your health care provider for information and tips, or schedule an appointment for everyone to talk together about your child’s health. n
Mia Van Eken, D.O., F.A.C.O.G. is an OB/GYN with privileges at Chandler Regional and Mercy Gilbert Medical Centers. January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Routine HPV vaccination is recommended for girls and boys at age 11 or 12 years.