A very important message about the need to take the HPV vaccine…it protects our kids in a very important way.
What if you could take a medicine that prevents cancer? Most of us already have. In 1982, the Federal Drug Administration approved the first medicine to prevent cancer, the hepatitis B vaccine.
In 2006, the FDA approved a second medicine to prevent cancer, the human papillomavirus vaccine. HPV infects almost 15 million Americans every year, many more than hepatitis B. Most of us will be infected with this virus at some point in our lives, and this year HPV will lead to cancer in more than 33,000 Americans. The best way to prevent this is to vaccinate our kids against HPV— so they don’t get cancer.
HPV is responsible for several cancers, most notably cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world and the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in most countries. But there is hope. Twelve years ago, Australia and Scotland implemented national programs to provide the HPV vaccine at school for free, and now 80 percent of teenagers in these countries are fully vaccinated against HPV. According to a study published last year in The Lancet Public Health, Australia may very well eliminate cervical cancer from their country within my lifetime.
This month, the Texas Tribune compared Australia’s achievement with that of another high-income country, the United States. Less than 50 percent of teenagers in the U.S. are fully vaccinated against HPV, and Texas ranks near the bottom at 40 percent. Our vaccination rates are half of Australia and Scotland. If it takes them 10 years to eliminate cancer, it will take us 20. There is no excuse for placing our children at risk for cancer, and we need to do something about it now.
So, what can we do? First, as health care providers, we need to take responsibility for how we present the HPV vaccine to our patients. We’ve become complacent and afraid of the conversation, making it out to be bigger than it is. We don’t do this with other vaccines. The information about HPV and its link to cancer is clear. The vaccine is safe and saves lives. If medical professionals aren’t confident about recommending it, our patients won’t be confident about taking it.
Second, our legislators need to take responsibility for being educated on this topic. There is a lot of confusion and misinformation about the HPV vaccine. The vaccine exists to prevent cancer, not STDs. It’s given during early adolescence because the immune system is ramping up, and that’s the best age to provide the most protection.
The vaccine is very safe. When politicians argue for more research into the safety of the HPV vaccine, they are behind the times. The research has been done and it continues to show this vaccine to be safe.
Lastly, Texas can do better. Our vaccination rates against HPV are among the worst in the country. To fix this, we must make the vaccine more accessible. At a minimum, this means mandating coverage by all insurance companies and providing programs for uninsured patients. Some states have launched campaigns to provide public funding for HPV vaccine education and administration. Others have adopted mandatory vaccination for school entry with specific “opt out” criteria. Perhaps we should take the lead from Australia and Scotland, and provide vaccines at school. We know that when vaccines are easily available, they are taken.
It’s been nearly 15 years since the HPV vaccine was approved. Other countries are eliminating cancer by vaccinating their kids. Why aren’t we?
Dr. Dina Tom is a pediatric hospitalist with University Health System and an assistant professor with UT Health San Antonio. Born and raised in Boerne, she and her husband have two fully vaccinated school-age children.