By May-Tal Sauerbrun, M.D.
Medford and Malden OB/GYN
Dr. Sauerbrun cares for women in the Medford and Malden area.
I see a lot of teenage and young women in my OB/GYN practice. They and millions more across the country are at risk for contracting HPV, or human papillomavirus. In fact, about 79 million people in the United States have HPV, and many don’t even know they’re infected.
People who contract one of the many strains of HPV are at increased risk for certain types of cancer, including:
- Anal cancer
- Penile cancer
- Head and neck cancer
- Cervical cancer
Cervical cancer is one of the main diseases caused by HPV. Just two of the more than 170 identified types of HPV account for about 70 percent of all cases of cervical cancer. Worldwide, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women.
These are staggering statistics. But we aren’t helpless in the fight against HPV. We have a powerful weapon on our side. In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first vaccine to protect against HPV infection – and it’s working.
HPV vaccine shows results
Before the vaccination was available, about half of all women in the United States had had HPV at some point during their lives, and many never knew they were infected or spreading the virus. Many strains of the virus don’t cause noticeable symptoms until something serious, like cancer, develops.
Since the approval of the first HPV vaccine, the rate of infection among teenage girls has decreased dramatically. A 2013 NPR report noted that infections had dropped by more than half among young women ages 14 to 19 in the first four years of immunizations. Surprisingly, that total even included young women who hadn’t been vaccinated.
Another 2013 report indicated that for the 33 percent of American teens who had received the full immunization treatment, the drop in HPV infections was a whopping 88 percent. However, only about half of teen girls in America have received a partial treatment of the vaccine.
Now we’re beginning to see fewer cases of cervical cancer. The Massachusetts Cancer Registry’s 2009 to 2013 data show decreasing numbers of cervical cancer cases since 2010. As we continue to study HPV and cervical cancer rates over the next 10 to 15 years, I believe we’ll continue to see these positive results.
Early HPV vaccination is best
The main type of HPV vaccine we use in the United States, Gardasil 9, protects against nine different types of HPV — seven types that can cause cancer and two that can cause noncancerous conditions, like genital warts. The FDA has approved Gardasil 9 for females ages 9 through 26.
The HPV vaccine works best if kids receive it before they’re sexually active. This is because the vaccine protects against types of HPV they haven’t been exposed to before. If patients receive the HPV vaccine after they’ve been exposed to a type of HPV, the vaccine won’t protect against that specific strain, though it will protect them from others. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children receive the vaccine at age 11 or 12 before becoming sexually active.
I know it can be hard for parents to talk with their kids about sex and sexually transmitted diseases. But the benefits of the HPV vaccine are so tremendous that it’s worth having that uncomfortable discussion. No parent wants his or her child to have to go through treatment for cancer. And we can dramatically lower the chances of that happening with early HPV vaccinations.
HPV vaccine helps boys, too
The responsibility of protecting against HPV infection doesn’t rest only with girls and young women. Preventing HPV infection in men is a real concern as well.
Boys and young men should be vaccinated, too. The FDA approved Gardasil 9 for males ages 9 through 26, and the CDC recommends vaccination for boys at age 11 or 12, just like girls. The HPV vaccine can lower their risk for penile and other types of cancer.
Another benefit of getting your sons vaccinated is that it can reduce the spread of HPV throughout our population. If more people are vaccinated, fewer people can spread the virus to their sexual partners throughout their lifetime.
I’ve already begun to see the positive results of the HPV vaccine in my practice. When I was doing my residency in New York City, about 50 percent of the older women I saw had some sort of abnormality that showed up during their regular Pap smears — many of which were because of HPV infection.
Today, I’m still seeing those rates of cervical abnormalities in my patients who are in their 30s and 40s who have never had the HPV vaccine. But when I perform Pap smears for younger women in their 20s, I don’t see as many issues with abnormal tests.
We can keep this forward momentum going. We can continue to reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases in our kids’ futures. Talk to your child’s doctor about the HPV vaccine.
Tags: OB/GYN, women's health