HPV by the numbers
Cervical, throat, anal and penile cancers are all linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV). The HPV vaccine is an important part of cancer prevention.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 80 million people in the United States are currently infected with the virus, which is linked to six cancers. There are 39,000 men and women diagnosed with HPV-related cancer every year.
Despite the evidence, a number of parents still choose not to have their children vaccinated — or don’t have them receive all three recommended doses of the vaccine.
The CDC recommends boys and girls be vaccinated at age 11 or 12 to give them time to build up protection before they’re exposed to the virus. Though the body assimilates the vaccine best in the preteen years, it’s effective and approved for men and women up to age 26.
Nationally, only 42% of eligible girls and 28% of eligible boys have completed their vaccine series, with only Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington D.C. mandating it for teenagers.
In stark contrast, other countries have government-supported vaccination programs, with national averages as high as 99%.
“As a society, we shouldn’t have to see these cancers anymore, and yet every week I meet and diagnose young women with advanced, and sometimes deadly, cervical cancer,” says Lois Ramondetta, M.D., professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Services, and a co-lead on the HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot. “We have a safe and effective vaccine that could prevent the majority of these cases that’s tragically still being underused. We should be doing more to protect our children.”
For Linda Ryan, the decision to have her sons Matthew, 18, and Ethan, 14, vaccinated against the virus was deeply personal. She currently is receiving treatment for her second recurrence of HPV-positive cervical cancer. Ryan says there’s almost no therapy she hasn’t endured.
However, having to tell her family that her cancer was back was far more excruciating than any therapy, she says.
“These are the people who love you and can’t imagine living without you. Knowing you have cancer makes the thought of living without you more of a reality than any parent or young child should have to face.
“With the HPV vaccine my children likely won’t have to tell me or their children they have cancer,” Ryan says. “As a parent, I couldn’t ask for much more.”
Both Yvonne and John Cosgrove have felt the impact of cancer. The disease runs deep in Yvonne’s family, with a history of myeloma, lung, BRCA-associated breast and ovarian cancers and melanoma. John’s father died of lung cancer and his grandmother died of breast cancer.
With this collective history, as parents, Yvonne says they are “extremely plugged into health, awareness and prevention, while trying to maintain a healthy balance of fun.”
Given their vigilance, the decision to vaccinate their children, Phoebe, 13, and Jake, 14, was an easy one. Fortunately, says Yvonne, her family’s pediatrician did an outstanding job of educating her about the importance of the vaccine.
When Yvonne and Phoebe were asked to participate in MD Anderson’s marketing campaign to encourage HPV vaccination, they were more than willing. The institution’s inaugural marketing/educational campaign featured parents, their children and HPV-associated cancer survivors.
“Among our peers, there’s a lot of awareness around the vaccine itself, but there doesn’t seem to be the understanding of what HPV truly is and all of the cancers the virus is associated with,” says Yvonne. “It’s important for people to understand just how prevalent the virus is, and that there is a way to prevent so many cancers.”
John, in particular, appreciated learning more about the virus and the vaccine.
“Generally, moms take their kids to pediatric appointments — we’re no exception, so I never had a conversation with my kids’ pediatrician about the vaccine,” he admits. “I think this campaign and my family’s participation helped get the message out to a broader audience, and gave me a better understanding of just how necessary the vaccine is.”
As the program manager for the HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot, it’s Lori Stevens’ responsibility to educate the general public about the virus’s impact.
MD Anderson surveyed its employees to better understand their HPV knowledge and awareness, and received more than 4,000 responses. Half said they had a child within the appropriate vaccination age range, and said they’d be interested in having their child inoculated at MD Anderson.
Armed with those responses, Ramondetta, Stevens and others pushed for MD Anderson to begin a Saturday vaccination clinic for eligible employees and their children. The clinic is open to employees ages 26 and under, and employees’ children ages 9 to 26. The vaccine is 100% covered by insurance, with no co-pay or deductible for the employee.
When the monthly clinic opened in June, Stevens’ 11-year-old son, Kirby, was first in line.
“Obviously, as an institution, we’ve been advocating for the vaccine, but it was really important for MD Anderson to be able to provide it for our employee family,” Stevens says. “A diagnosis of cancer is just so scary, and I feel fortunate that I have the opportunity to protect my child.”