About 4,100 women will die from cervical cancer this year. That’s a heartbreaking number considering experts say it doesn’t need to happen.
Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers we have. The fact is that nearly all cases of it are caused by HPV (human papilloma virus), a virus that as of 2006 (2009 for boys) we have a vaccination for.
It’s called the HPV vaccine and it’s recommended for girls and boys ages 11 to 12 years old (and as early as 9 years old in some cases). For boys, the vaccine helps protect against genital warts, in addition to cancers in the anus, mouth, throat and penis.
However, as of 2015, the vaccination has been underutilized despite the fact that science says it greatly reduces a woman’s risk of getting cervical cancer by 70 percent. Yet reports in 2013 say that only 57 percent of girls ages 13 to 17 got vaccinated with the first dose; while only 32 percent received all three recommended doses. The rate for boys was even less at 35 percent.
So why are doctors not administering this vaccination – a vaccination that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates would avoid 53,000 future cervical cancers if only 80 percent of U.S. teens were vaccinated?
For one, parents have questions. Will getting vaccinated give my child a false sense of unprotected-sex security? Why does it need to be administered at such a young age when “catch-up” vaccinations are available at a more appropriate age? Do I even want to talk to my 11-year-old about risky sex?
Parents, it seems, are not alone in their hesitation. In more conservative parts of the country, a study shows that doctors themselves are reluctant to recommend the vaccine until they know parents are ready to talk openly with their children about sex.
Which certainly sounds reasonable, except for one thing: this vaccine is not about sex. It’s about cancer.
The research published in JAMA Internal Medicine this past February shows that there is no increase of STDs in vaccinated teens, just as there is evidence that girls who have access to free birth control are no more sexually active than girls who don’t.
For decades people have been wishing, praying, hoping for a cancer cure. We’re not there, but we have something that can greatly help protect against most – albeit not all – cases of cervical and HPV-related cancers.
If you’re not comfortable talking about sex with your 11 year old, then don’t. But do talk to your child about reducing his or her risk of cancer. Communicate things like the importance of a healthy diet, limiting tobacco and alcohol as they get older, avoiding risky behaviors in general, protecting skin from the sun, maintaining well checks and health screenings, and exercising regularly. These are all things that help reduce the risk of cancer.
And, so can getting the HPV vaccination.