Dr. Kenneth A. Alexander, HPV vaccine

The Urgency of HPV Immunization

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In my earlier years, the worst STD we could possibly imagine getting was genital herpes. To our minds, syphilis and gonorrhea were old school, prehistoric, pre-penicillin infections earmarked for degenerate ruffians living fast and dying not-so-young after their noses fell off.  Little did we know.

HIV/AIDS was the wake-up call that made herpes hysteria seem quaint by comparison. Today, HIV/AIDS is still serious but manageable and not the catastrophe it was in the 80s and early 90s.  And genital herpes, while uncomfortable and inconvenient, isn’t the relationship deal breaker it was in the late 70s (which is a good thing since 776,000 of American adults either have it or are carriers.)

For those who are sexually active outside of a mutually monogamous relationship where both partners are disease-free, safe sex practices can prevent the transmission of HIV and genital warts.  It’s up to us as adults to step up and take responsibility for our own lives and our own bodies, as well as protect those with whom we are in love or in lust.

But now we’ve got thegenitalhuman papillomavirus(HPV) that is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the US today and connected to both genital warts and most critically, cervical, rectal, throat and other cancers.  But unlike other STDs, stemming this epidemic isn’t just the business of those who are actually having sex but rather, it’s up to the parents of the children who will be having sex in the future.

HPV all around

There are more than 40 types of HPV that can infect males and females and it’s not at all uncommon for someone to have multiple strains.It’s important to note that the kinds of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancers.  The former are visible, the latter are not.

Say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually-active men and women get it at some point in their lives. This is true even for people who only have sex with one person in their lifetime . . . Most infected persons do not realize they are infected, or that they are passing HPV on to a sex partner.”

In 90% of healthy individuals, the immune system usually clears the HPV virus from the body on its own. But it’s for the remaining 10% where the trouble starts. Depending on the type, an HPV infection lingering in the body may cause genital and anal warts or in the case of the most virulent strains, may eventually lead to cancer, with cervical cancer being the most common serious complication.

According to the CDC, cervical cancer does not show symptoms until it is quite advanced.  Screening is therefore important but the tests are not recommended for women under 30.  You can, however, opt for a pap test.  The Pap test is recommended for all women between the ages of 21 and 65 years old, and can be done in a doctor's office or clinic.

Good news, bad news

The good news is that the disease-causing strains of HPV are completely preventable via a series of immunization shots.  This represents an extraordinary medical breakthrough.  The proviso is, however, that though the series can be administered to those up to 26 years of age, the optimum window for both boys and girls is between 11 and 12 years old.

For full information, check out the CDC website at http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm

The bad news is that though many pre-teens and teens have received the series so far, many still have not either through parental apathy or active pushback.

Parental objections come from two areas; those who oppose immunization in principal and those who worry that HPV immunization will encourage promiscuity in their children.  Let’s take them one at a time:

  • Immunization safety– As a physician, when I hear of parents refusing to immunize their children for diseases, it infuriates me beyond description.  These vaccines are perfectly safe and to deny your child these life-saving precautions is irresponsible to both her and to society at large.
  • Sexual activity–  Guess what?  Your kids are going to have sex some day if they’re not doing it already, regardless of how you feel about it.  In the sexual arena, their peers (and the ubiquitous internet, unfortunately) exercise far more influence than you ever will.  This same argument – that it would encourage promiscuity – has been lodged against sex education in schools for some years now. But in fact, and the statistics bear me out, that in the geographical areas there ismoresex education,moreaccessible information andmoreavailable precaution, there islessearly teen sex, teen pregnancy and STD transmission rates.

HPV doesn’t have to happen.  But it’s up to parents of teens and tweens today to start safeguarding the tomorrow’s health of the next generation, today.

Follow me on Twitter @DrAvaMD and friend me on Facebook Dr Ava Shamban

Last Updated:10/23/2013
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