THE SAFETY and effectiveness of a vaccine to protect teen girls against dangerous strains of the virus that is a leading cause of cervical cancer have been unquestionably proved. So it is both discouraging and heartbreaking that, because of ignorance and ill-founded fears, relatively few young people get this lifesaving vaccine.
A study released in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention catalogued the remarkable decrease in the rate of infection from the human papillomavirus, or HPV, among girls 14 to 19. The study, comparing infection rates in girls before and after the vaccine was introduced in 2006, showed a drop of more than 56 percent. “These are striking results,” said CDC director Thomas R. Frieden.
HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection, causes serious health problems (including cancer) for both men and women. But only one-third of 13- to 17-year-old girls in the United States have received the recommended three-dose series of HPV vaccine. “Preventable tragedies” is how Dr. Frieden referred to the cases of cervical cancer that will affect 50,000 girls alive today who would have been spared were the vaccination rate boosted to the targeted 87 percent. That’s in addition to increasing evidence that the HPV vaccine may protect against head and neck cancers associated with HPV, an issue that recently received attention with the revelation by actor Michael Douglas that his throat cancer may have been caused by having oral sex with an HPV-
Routine vaccination is recommended for both girls and boys starting at age 11 or 12. Parents have proved to be reluctant; some worry about harmful, long-term side effects (there are none), while others fear the vaccination will promote adolescent promiscuity (also disproved by the recent CDC study). Doctors and other health-care providers have been lackadaisical in recommending the shots. States, which long ago recognized the public-policy importance of tying immunizations for communicable diseases to school enrollment, unfortunately have shied away from the HPV vaccine. The District and Virginia are the only jurisdictions in the country that include HPV in the portfolio of shots required for school, though even they (rightly) allow parents to opt out.
It’s time America gets over its squeamishness and takes advantage of this medical advance. Said Dr. Frieden: “The time has come to ramp up our efforts to protect the next generation against cancer with the HPV vaccine. This is an anti-cancer vaccine.”