HPV Vaccine: A Cancer-Preventing Shot

Two years ago, Caroline Clare’s father was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer. He’s doing better now, but not before enduring intensive chemotherapy sessions and surgery to remove his lymph nodes. The culprit?  Human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been named a top public health threat by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because it can cause several types of cancer in both men and women.

Thankfully, there’s a safe and effective three-dose vaccine that can protect kids and young adults from developing HPV-related diseases, and it’s available at little or no cost through insurance or the federal Vaccines for Children program for uninsured or underinsured minors. Clare plans on getting her young son vaccinated against the HPV virus as soon as he’s age-appropriate.

“As a parent, you want to do everything in your power to protect your children,” Clare says. “It’s tremendously comforting to know that because of the HPV vaccine, my son will never have to go through what his grandfather experienced. Knowing that we can prevent these illnesses – it’s a sigh of relief, and it helps you be proactive in your child’s health.”

The vaccine, recommended for boys and girls starting at age 11 or 12, helps shield children from developing HPV-related cervical, vulvar, vaginal, penile, anal and throat cancers. It’s recommended for girls up to age 26 and boys up to age 21, though the vaccine produces the strongest immune response when children are younger and have yet to be exposed to the virus. Yet despite the HPV vaccine’s cancer-preventing powers, the 2013 National Immunization Survey of teenagers found that just 38 percent of girls and 14 percent of boys receive all three recommended doses. Each day, there are thousands of missed opportunities to prevent HPV-related cancers. To change that, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) has launched a public health campaign that educates and activates caregivers, providers, and the community at large in an effort to protect more of Pittsburgh’s children, teens, and young adults against the potential consequences of HPV.

Boosting low HPV vaccination rates starts with healthcare providers ensuring that parents or guardians are informed about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, according to Dr. Todd Wolynn, a pediatrician from Kids Plus Pediatrics who’s involved in JHF’s campaign. He tells parents who bring children to his practice – Clare among them – why the HPV vaccine is a cornerstone of preventive medicine.

“It’s the only anti-cancer measure that we truly have,” Dr. Wolynn says. "There’s no other tool in our belt that’s close to this vaccine. We provide parents with fact-based information through multiple channels: handouts in the office, videos and articles posted on our website and on social media, and external resources that we trust. We want parents to know that we strongly recommend this vaccine.”

Research shows that a strong provider recommendation is the single largest factor in determining whether parents vaccinate their kids against HPV. Toni Hartley decided to vaccinate her two children at Kids Plus Pediatrics after conducting research online and consulting with Dr. Wolynn during a routine check-up.

“Typically, our decision-making comes from the pediatrician’s recommendation – we’ve entrusted him with our children since they were newborns,” Hartley says. “I think you need to take the information that’s being presented to you – from your doctor, from the research that supports the shots – and think about what you want your children to have to deal with later in life. To me, it was no different than when I vaccinated them against measles, mumps, and rubella. The more I can protect my children from future illness, the better.”

Some parents may be reluctant to discuss HPV with their child’s healthcare provider because it’s a sexually-transmitted infection, says Dr. Ana Radovic, an adolescent medicine physician and pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Research shows that receiving the HPV vaccine doesn’t cause adolescents to be more sexually active, or start being sexually active at an earlier age.

“The best time to get the vaccine is well before you’re exposed to the virus, and the immunity benefits are long-lasting” Dr. Radovic says. “When parents raise questions about sexuality, it’s helpful to ask whether there’s ongoing communication between parents and children about healthy lifestyle choices. Parents might not think that their kids are listening, but research indicates that when adolescents feel free to share their thoughts and opinions, it promotes healthy decisions.”

Dr. Radovic says it’s normal for parents to have questions about vaccines, but it’s important for them to engage in conversations with their child’s doctor and seek information from reliable sources. She has lent her support to JHF’s vaccination initiative, which is highlighting the facts and cancer-fighting aspects of the vaccine through grassroots community groups, neighborhood events, and traditional and social media (check out #hpvpittsburgh on Twitter).  

Clare recalls hearing stories about how her mother-in-law contracted polio as a young girl, in the days before Jonas Salk’s vaccine virtually eradicated the disease. Sixty years after Salk’s discovery, Clare is grateful that her son and other children can benefit from another breakthrough vaccine.

“We’re in a society now where we’re so fortunate not to see the results of these life-threatening illnesses,” Clare says. “We need to work together to keep our children as safe as possible.”

For more information on the Jewish Healthcare Foundation’s HPV vaccination initiative, visit hpvpittsburgh.org.