Research

Vaccine Campaign to End HPV-Related Cancers Intensifies

Studies continue to confirm what most medical professionals already know: the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine is important because it prevents infections that can cause cancer.

Researchers have established that the vaccine against HPV infection has led to significant reductions in the number of infections and HPV pre-cancers in young people since the first vaccine became available 12 years ago. Some HPV infections can cause cancer— such as cancer of the cervix or in the back of the throat.

About 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers (cancers that form in the tissues of the throat) are caused by high-risk HPV infection, and the incidence of HPV-positive cancers has been increasing in the United States in recent decades. Each year, about 31,000 men and women in the U.S. are diagnosed with a cancer caused by an HPV infection.

Now, the American Cancer Society (ACS) is bolstering a campaign to further educate primary care physicians and family doctors about the importance of informing parents that the HPV vaccine is about cancer prevention. There is much stigma attached to HPV, which is the most common sexually transmitted virus and infection in the U.S.

Goal: 80% Vaccination Rate
In a conference last month, the ACS told physician attendants that if the United States can reach an 80 percent vaccination rate by 2026, it’s very likely that the HPV virus could be eliminated by 2040 — much like vaccines against polio and smallpox virtually eliminated those two threats to the public health decades ago, according to Geoffrey Young, M.D., chief of head and neck surgery at Miami Cancer Institute, and Guilherme Rabinowits, M.D.,  a medical oncologist and hematologist at the Institute, both of whom attended the ACS conference.

“The hope is that – with large-scale vaccination programs – we can reduce and eventually eliminate oropharyngeal cancer in the population,” says Dr. Young. And that’s essential since there is currently no screening program for throat cancer. Because of that, the rate of oropharyngeal cancer in men surpassed the rate of cervical cancer in women in 2010, he adds.

The goal of an 80 percent vaccination rate is challenging, but doable, physicians say. There is optimism despite a study earlier this year from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association finding that 29 percent of the teens its members insure receive a first dose of the HPV vaccine by their 13th birthday. Meanwhile, the CDC has reported that about six out of 10 U.S. parents are choosing to get their kids vaccinated — that represents about a 60 percent HPV vaccination rate.

In late 2016, the CDC updated its HPV vaccine recommendations, urging parents to have their children, 11 to 12 year olds, get two doses of HPV vaccine at least six months apart.

Educating Doctors and Parents
It’s important for both physicians and parents to fully understand the implications of failing to get vaccinated, and not to get caught up in false or misleading preconceptions, says Dr. Young. He adds that the ACS education campaign will help guide doctors in explaining the life-saving benefits of HPV vaccines to parents.

“People are not understanding who to give the vaccinations to; not understanding what to talk to the parents about; and how to talk to the parents about what the vaccine is for – that it’s for preventing cancer,” says Dr. Young. “That it’s not about making people more promiscuous or have sex because they’ve been vaccinated against HPV and all of these misnomers.”

A recent study of more than 2,600 young adults in the United States found that the prevalence of oral infection with four HPV types, including two high-risk, or cancer-causing, types, was 88 percent  lower in those who reported receiving at least one dose of an HPV vaccine than in those who said they were not vaccinated.

A Cancer Prevention Vaccine
“Now you have a cancer prevention vaccine and everybody’s making a big deal about it because of the sexually transmitted nature of it and the belief that kids will become more promiscuous – but this is really not the point,” says Dr. Rabinowits.

Florida has one of the lowest rates in the national in terms of getting the full course of the HPV vaccines, say Drs. Young and Rabinowits. One factor is that facts about the HPV vaccine’s cancer prevention aspect are not getting out to the state’s rural communities. In some Florida communities with diverse populations, language and cultural barriers may also be hindering vaccine rates.

“Medical professionals need to be properly educated on how to talk to parents and how to include this vaccination with other shots that kids need at that age for a smooth transition,” explains Dr. Rabinowits. “If parents have questions, in addition to answering their questions, healthcare providers should emphasize that this is a cancer prevention vaccine.”

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