HPV vaccine is a simple step against cancer

  • By David Frockt and Diana Birkett Rakow
  • Friday, March 20, 2015 11:37am
  • OpinionCommentary

In just the last six months, a measles outbreak at Disneyland spread fear into communities across the country. Deadly meningococcal disease at the University of Oregon claimed a young life and launched a campaign for immediate mass immunizations on campus. These occurrences and others have been a stark reminder that it still is very important for us to have open conversations about the critical importance of vaccinations for individual and community health.

Washington has a history of high rates of vaccine hesitancy and vaccine exemptions, so our kids may be at greater risk. As parents, as leaders, we want to do everything we can to protect children across this state and beyond.

While the focus this year has been on chicken pox and meningitis, there is another preventable disease that urgently requires more attention. Human papilloma virus, or HPV, causes 90 percent of all cervical cancers, as well as other cancers in men and women. One third of HPV-related cervical cancer cases will be fatal. More than 6,000 people are likely to die this year from HPV-related cancers.

Despite this, the vaccination rate for HPV is below 40 percent for girls and below 15 percent for boys. By comparison, 90 percent of children in the U.S. are vaccinated for polio, measles and chicken pox. The juxtaposition is staggering.

Last week, a resolution passed the state Senate calling for increased efforts to raise awareness of HPV vaccines, and every Washingtonian should pay attention.

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus and it’s at epidemic levels across the country. Most people who contract the disease experience no symptoms. Many immune systems defeat the virus within a year or two, but others are not so lucky. HPV can cause cancer and nearly 27,000 cancer cases are reported in the U.S. annually, in men and women. Most cases are preventable through immunizations.

The power to eradicate this form of cancer is available to everyone with just a series of three vaccinations, given over six months. HPV vaccinations are recommended for early adolescents, around ages 11-12. Many parents and providers are uncomfortable thinking about preventing a sexually transmitted disease in young teens. The age recommendation has much less to do with sexual activity, than with a child’s developing body. Doctors recommend the HPV vaccine at this age in part because this is when the immune system is best ready to respond to the vaccine. It’s about biology, not behavior. The stigma of HPV as a sexually-transmitted disease, combined with our state’s high vaccine hesitancy rates, have made the battle against HPV-related cancers challenging.

Doctors, public health officials and political and community leaders agree: Now is the time for action. There are two key steps we urge every Washingtonian to take to help fight HPV-related cancer.

First, if you have children, get them vaccinated. Talk to your doctor about the best age and be sure to get all three shots. Your child should get the chance to avoid HPV-related cancer.

Second, whether you have children or not, fight the stigma and start a conversation. If your grandchildren are adolescents, talk to their parents about HPV vaccination. Encourage parents with adolescent children to talk about HPV vaccination.

It is within our power to eradicate HPV-related cancers in a generation if we take action. Our children deserve to grow up without the specter of this cancer looming over their lives. Now is the time for statewide conversation and action to prevent HPV.

State Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, represents the 46th District. Diana Birkett Rakow is president of the Group Health Foundation.

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