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Protecting Young People from HPV Infection

Thursday, January 26, 2012 8:56 AM

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus that causes cancer. It is spread by skin-to-skin contact and sexual contact. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. It is so common that almost all people who are sexually active at any point in their lives will get some type of HPV - and there are nearly 200 types. Most people who become infected remain unaware of it and infect others before they clear it on their own.

Kara Vig, MD, Pedatrician at NorthShore, discusses what parents and teens should know about HPV:

The number of HPV-related cancers is striking! It causes more than 90% of all cervical cancers, more than 70% of all mouth and throat cancers, most vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancers, and about half of all penile cancers. And these numbers continue to rise as more scientific research is being completed. HPV also causes warts, though in most cases it causes an infection without symptoms. Most women only find out they have HPV when they get an abnormal pap smear, which then often leads to invasive procedures, additional gynecologic testing, discomfort, and significant anxiety. As an aside, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C are two other viruses that can lead to cancer (liver cancer), though this is much less common than HPV-related cancers. Hepatitis B is a childhood vaccine.

What can we do?
Fortunately, parents and patients can take important steps to reduce HPV infection risks, and therefore reduce cancer risks:

Vaccinate: The HPV vaccine helps to prevent the most common types of cancer-causing HPV. The vaccine is available for males and females ages 9-26. It is routinely recommended by the CDC and the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) at 11 years old. If given before 15 years old, it is a 2-dose series. The immune system has been proven to be stronger for younger children and teens. If given from 15-26, it is a 3-dose series. The greatest protection is achieved if all doses are completed well before sexual initiation and exposure to HPV. Notably, 75% of new HPV infections occur between 15-24 years, and over half of these new infections occur within the first 3 years after sexual initiation.

HPV vaccines are available in over 100 different countries and over 100 million doses have been distributed since 2006. There have been many large scale (participants in the millions) cohort studies on the vaccine, and it has not been found to have any links between autoimmune, neurologic, or thromboembolic events (blood clots). It has been found to be a very safe vaccine. The rates of adverse effects associated with HPV have been found to be similar to the rates for other childhood vaccines.

Communicate: Talk to your children and teens about safe sex and sexually transmitted infections. Let them know their risks can be reduced by using condoms during any sexual contact, by delaying sexual initiation, and by abstinence (including oral sex). But remember, protection from HPV and its associated complications by giving the vaccine is for a lifetime, including adulthood.

Educate: Want to learn more about HPV infection and its prevention? The CDC and AAP are valuable resources for vaccination information.

Have you spoken with your child or his/her primary care physician about this vaccine?