On Your Health

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HPV Vaccine for Preteens: What You Need to Know

If a shot could protect you from cancer, would you take it? Would you vaccinate your children? Of course, most of us would answer "yes" to this easy question. Yet only 36 percent of Oklahoma girls ages 13-17 received the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine in 2014, even though the HPV vaccine has been proven to be a safe, effective prevention strategy against types of cancer that number 27,000 cases a year. The national vaccination rate is also low, at 40 percent.

Certain types of HPV – the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. – cause cervical, vaginal and anal cancer in females and penile cancer in males. Other types of HPV cause genital warts. Most sexually active people get HPV at some point in their lives (studies show 80 percent of 50-year-olds have been infected) although most show no symptoms. Approximately 79 million people in the U.S. are currently infected with HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 14 million new infections occur each year. Many times, the immune system will clear up an HPV infection on its own, but infection with one of the more dangerous, high-risk strains of HPV can lead to cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates more than 4,000 women will die of cervical cancer this year.

Even with low vaccination rates, the CDC recently announced encouraging news: the HPV vaccine is working. A study published in the journal Pediatrics shows in the decade since the vaccine became available, there has been a sharp decline in the number of U.S. women who enter adulthood infected with HPV.

The study found the infection rate of the four different HPV strains targeted by the Gardasil vaccine dropped 64 percent in teenage girls and 34 percent in women their early 20s.

The bottom line? Because fewer young women are getting HPV, there will be fewer cases of genital warts and pre-cancers for women in their 20s, which will result in less cervical cancer as these women age.

But despite the HPV vaccine's proven effectiveness, immunization rates remain low. This could be due in part to fears that giving the HPV vaccine will make teenagers more likely to have sex, but there is no evidence that this is accurate. Most people don't realize the ideal time to vaccinate starts around age 11 or 12, when studies have shown a preteen's immune response is more resilient than that of a teenager. This age is also when many states require two other vaccines — one for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, and the other for meningococcal disease. The immunization rates for those vaccines are 80 percent.

"The HPV vaccine is most effective if given to a person BEFORE he or she becomes sexually active and has not yet been exposed to high-risk HIV strains," says Julie Hansen, M.D., an OB/GYN at INTEGRIS.

While many parents do not want to think about the possibility of a sexually transmitted disease when their children are that age, Hansen stresses that the focus is on prevention. "We would like people to think of this simply as a vaccine against cancer," she says.

She recommends a newer vaccine now available called Gardasil 9, which protects against the nine most high-risk HPV strains.

"I strongly encourage moms to talk to their pediatrician or with their gynecologist, and get vaccinations for both daughters AND sons," she says.

For more information about the safety and effectiveness of the HPV vaccine for preteens, read Dr. Hansen's new blog post.