It’s Not About STDs.  It’s About Fighting Cancer.

It’s Not About STDs. It’s About Fighting Cancer.

How immunizing young girls—and boys—against the human papillomavirus can save lives.

By Patrick Kenney

Odds are you’ve contracted, are carrying, or will be infected by the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection out there.

“This is a very ancient virus,” explains Dr. Kenneth Alexander, professor of pediatrics and chief of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital.

But as we discover how large a role the human papillomavirus plays in our lives, we’ve also come to recognize the sinister hand it has in the formation of certain cancer cells. HPV Type 16 is responsible for most cases of cervical cancer, and we now know it causes between 80 and 100 percent of anal cancers.

“We don’t have any clinical trials data from the [Gardasil] vaccine, but there’s now really good evidence that somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of cancers in the oral cavity are also caused by HPV,” says Alexander.

“Back when I was a medical student, the person with head and neck cancer was the old smoker/drinker at the VA. Some guy in his seventies with a lot of hard miles on him,” says Alexander. Turns out those head and neck cancers are HPV negative, he explains. “The person with HPV associated head and neck cancer is a person in their forties or fifties.”

Here, against all these terrifying odds, is where the argument for immunizing boys lies. And in fact, cancer prevention remains the only Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sanctioned reason for immunizing boys.

Alexander describes a “sequenced rollout;” as study results came in, the FDA granted application. Soon after the first studies (around 2005), the FDA approved Gardasil for the prevention of HPV associated cervical cancer and genital warts in women.

Around 2010, testing determined that the vaccine could prevent anal cancer in the male population, and it was granted application for both sexes by the FDA.

While it’s true that most HPV infections are not dangerous, some can be deadly. “Anal cancers are actually not rare,” says Alexander. Immunizing both boys and girls before they’re sexually active (commonly suggested by age 11 or 12) can help prevent these and other cancers associated with HPV Type 16.

Understanding of this vaccine as a powerful weapon against cancer still has a long way to go. Parental reluctance to consider their children’s sexuality means that less than half the population that should and can be vaccinated, is. And in the struggle against cancer, why fight it when you can prevent it?

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Published in Chicago Health Summer/Fall 2012