I am unapologetic about my belief in the overall importance, efficacy, and safety of vaccinations. I believe that vaccinations were the greatest scientific breakthrough of the past century, even surpassing the role of antibiotics. And while most of us think of vaccinations for preventing infections like measles, polio, and influenza, they are increasingly playing roles in the world of cancer treatment and prevention.
At the top of the list is the HPV vaccine. Human papilloma virus is very common with more than 100 types of the virus existing. This virus is known to cause the common cold sore and is also the most common sexually transmitted disease in human beings. Most of us are exposed to this virus over our lifetimes and nothing bad happens because most strains are relatively benign. But some strains are just the opposite – aggressive, transmittable and implicated in everything from cancer of the cervix to cancer of the mouth, tonsil, and base of tongue. That’s where the vaccine comes in.
One of the most dangerous strains of this virus is HPV 16. It causes more than 70% of the cases of cancer of the throat. This type of cancer has skyrocketed in occurrence over the past ten years, increasing 4-5 fold among men without any other risk factors for cancer. This cancer, and cancer of the cervix, can be largely prevented with vaccination.
Right now there are two FDA approved vaccines on the market – Gardasil and Ceravix. They are given in three doses over a six-month period and many times the cost is covered by insurance. But here’s the catch. A person needs to be vaccinated before exposure to the virus, which means before becoming sexually active.
Getting vaccinated is not a green light to become sexually active. Getting vaccinated does mean that when a person engages in sexual activity later in life, the dangerous strains of the virus will not cause cancer. Because this vaccine has been proven to be safe and prevent cancer, I believe it is one of the most important vaccinations in a parent’s tool box.
My wish is that all doctors will talk to adult patients about vaccinating their children, pediatricians and family doctors will make sure their younger patients get all three of their shots, and that all parents will protect their children against these cancers. It just takes a shot.