Monday, March 8, 2010

The Shot that Stops Cancer

Although sexually-transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) infections can cause certain cancers and genital warts in both men and women, the link between HPV infections and cervical cancer makes these viruses especially dangerous for women. For that reason, the CDC added the HPV vaccine to its schedule of recommended vaccines a few years ago. Today, girls and young women can receive an HPV vaccine to prevent infection with the viruses that cause 70% of all cervical cancers (ideally, a girl is vaccinated before she becomes sexually active).

In the past, the CDC has recommended the HPV vaccine only for girls and young women. Boys and young men, who (clearly) often pass on HPV to women, were not vaccinated. Earlier this year, however, the CDC changed a footnote in its HPV vaccine recommendations to include boys and young men.

The CDC's 2010 recommended immunization schedule rather mincingly states that "HPV4 [one of the HPV vaccines] may be administered in a 3-dose series to males aged 9 through 18 years to reduce their likelihood of acquiring genital warts," no doubt to persuade parents of boys that the HPV vaccine can directly benefit their sons. Vaccinating boys, however, also helps prevent cervical cancer in their future female sexual partners.

A recent study in Pediatrics by immunization expert Dr. Gary Freed found that about 11% of parents refuse some vaccines because of concerns that the vaccine might cause health problems or autism in their children. These vaccine safety concerns have been disproved by numerous studies but persist among some parents nonetheless.

I suspect that, in an era of frequent vaccine refusal by parents, the CDC and its advisory committee, ACIP, decided that it was easier to "sell" parents of boys on the HPV vaccine if they said that the vaccine protected their boys from genital warts than if they said that the vaccine would protect their sons' future girlfriends and wives from cancer.

When parents consider getting the HPV vaccine for their boys, perhaps they should ask themselves this: if you could take one small step to prevent cancer in someone else - wouldn't you?