There’s a vaccine for young people that prevents cancer, but most of them don’t get it because most doctors fail to recommend it

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The human papilloma virus vaccination is proven to prevent cervical cancer and genital warts, but many pediatricians and family doctors still don’t strongly recommend it, and they need to do better.

That was the main message at an HPV conference in Lexington June 21, where more than 100 people, mostly health-care providers, came to learn about the cancer-causing virus and the under-utilized vaccine that prevents it.

Dr. Alix Casler, medical director of pediatrics at Orlando Health Physician Associates in Florida, stressed the importance of teaching everyone in a health-care organization about why HPV vaccinations are so important.

“Every year that we fail to reach our goal, there are thousands of children who are going to go on to develop cancer,” Casler said. “It is one of the most lifesaving things we do,” but because it isn’t mandatory and the diseases that it causes aren’t ones pediatricians deal with, it often falls to the bottom of providers’ priorities, she said.

Studies show that a “clear recommendation” from a physician is the most important factor in whether children get the HPV vaccine. Casler noted that a 2013 survey found that 80 percent of mothers who received a same-day recommendation had their son or daughter vaccinated that day.

The three-dose HPV vaccine was approved by the federal government 10 years ago and is recommended for 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls.

Kentucky falls in the bottom 10 states for HPV vaccinations, with 37.5 percent of its girls and 13.2 percent of its boys aged 13 to 17 vaccinated as of 2014. Nationwide, fewer than half of girls and only one-fifth of boys are getting immunized, and vaccination coverage did not increase substantially from 2011 to 2014.

HPV is spreading. About 79 million people in the United States are infected with it, and about 14 million more become infected each year. It is estimated that half of these new infections occur in people 15 to 24 years old.

Though most HPV infections will clear up on their own, the most persistent strains of the virus are directly linked to 27,000 new cancers a year. About 30 women per day in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer caused by HPV, and every year, there are about 324,000 new cases of genital warts caused by the virus.

Lois Ramondetta, a gynecologic oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who is on a mission to educate health-care providers about the vaccine, told clinicians in southern Texas, “If you are not recommending the vaccine, you are not doing your job. It’s the equivalent of having patients in their 50s and not recommending a colonoscopy — and then having them come back with cancer.” So reports Laurie McGinley for The Washington Post.

HPV infections cause more than 90 percent of anal and cervical cancers and 70 percent of vaginal, vulvar, penile and middle throat cancers, and two of the HPV strains are associated with more than 90 percent of anal and genital warts.

HPV is most commonly transmitted through sexual intercourse, but it can also be transmitted through any skin-to-skin contact, including genital contact of any kind or simply kissing.

Doctors and parents alike have struggled with the idea of giving young children a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease. And some parents hesitate because they say the vaccine encourages sexual promiscuity, though research says otherwise.

Caslir said that just like putting on a seat belt to protect yourself before you turn on the engine, the most effective time to vaccinate for the cancer causing HPV virus is prior to exposure. In addition, it is important to vaccinate pre-teens early because they have the best immune response to the vaccine and are more likely to keep coming in for annual visits.

Dr. Daron G. Ferris, a speaker at the conference who works at the Georgia Cancer Center in Augusta, said that a mother of a 21-year-old woman with cervical cancer caused by HPV asked him, “So you mean if my daughter had received the Gardasil shots, she probably would not be having this surgery today?” and that he told her, “Yes. She would not have been there if she had been vaccinated.”

Kirk Forbes, whose daughter Kristen died at the age of 23 from cervical cancer caused by a high risk strain of HPV, told the story of his daughter’s battle. He and his wife have founded the Kristen Forbes EVE Foundation, whose mission is to eradicate cervical cancer and significantly reduce HPV infection rates. One of the foundation’s efforts is a nationally acclaimed documentary that profiles five women, including Kristen, called “Someone You Love: The HPV Epidemic.”


“We have the means to stop 90 percent of cervical cancers and who know how many versions of oral cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer… and could literally wipe out genital warts,” Forbes said.”We’ve got all the tools we need, now we’ve got to go out and get the job done.”

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