What if you were offered the only known vaccine to prevent cancer? And furthermore, that vaccine had no more negative side effects — potential for low grade fever, headache and soreness — than any of the other current well-known and widely accepted current vaccines. Would you be interested?
“HPV, short for human papillomavirus, is undoubtedly the only vaccine we know of that prevents cancer,” says Dr. Karolina Lis-Hyjek, MD, who practices family medicine at University of Rochester Medicine Primary Care. “It’s quite an important discovery. But it’s the most controversial. If this were about lung cancer it wouldn’t be a question. But because it’s attached to sex and behavior, it carries a stigma.”
As a family physician Lis-Hyjek works with a person over an entire lifetime, from newborns to the elderly. This lifetime perspective plays a critical role in understanding the value of the HPV vaccine.
There are more than 150 different types of HPV. Of these, there are 13 types that are high-risk and can cause cancer. The HPV vaccine helps prevent cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer in women and penile cancer in men. In both men and women, it can prevent oral and anal cancer.
Who needs it?
The Centers for Disease Control and prevention recommends starting the vaccine as early as age nine and encourages women in the U.S. up to age 26 and men up to age 21 to receive it. The age cap is largely driven by cost-effectiveness. In Europe, the age range goes up to 45. Every patient’s story is a little different, and you should talk to your primary care physician for advice. Those with same-sex partners, as well as those with autoimmune diseases or are immunocompromised, are at a higher risk.
Why the controversy?
Initial discussions about the HPV vaccine begin between a physician and parents regarding their preteen child.
“This discussion often feels way too soon for many parents,” Lis-Hyjek says. “It implies recognizing future sexual activity. It’s also been thought of as a gateway to encouraging risky sexual behavior, but studies have disproven that. HPV is preventative and can help your child when they become a young adult.”
Most people who become infected with HPV do not know they have it. Typically, a body’s immune system will clear it within two years. By age 50, at least four out of every five women will have been infected with HPV at one point in their lives. It is also common in men and often shows no symptoms.
It’s important to note that a person can get infected with HPV from one exposure that happened long before a current, monogamous relationship. An effective way to reduce that risk is to get vaccinated.
“Only 60 percent of females and 40 percent of males in the U.S. are vaccinated,” Lis-Hyjek says. “That’s much lower than other countries.”