Is protecting children from cancer un-American?

No family wants to experience this. I certainly don’t. That’s why I’ve had my teenage daughter vaccinated against HPV. Because I’ve seen the often tragic effects of HPV, it was an easy decision. My teenage son also has received the vaccine, as recommended by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to reduce his risk of HPV-related cancer.
 
Sadly, we’re in the minority. Only 35 percent of teen girls and 1 percent of teen boys in this country have received all three doses as recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). The United States has one of the lowest vaccination rates of all developed countries. Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have vaccination rates above 70 percent. Remarkably in Rwanda, where school-based vaccinations are mandatory for girls, the vaccination rate is 95 percent.
 
The Society of Gynecologic Oncology’s vision is to eradicate gynecologic cancers, including those caused by HPV. To do so, there is no question we must significantly increase our HPV vaccination rates. States should consider making the HPV vaccination mandatory for school attendance, as they do for other vaccines such as hepatitis B, which is known to cause cancer of the liver. The benefits would be enormous. A recently published Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that, even with the disappointing vaccination rates, the prevalence of the most worrisome types of HPV has been cut in half among American teenage girls since vaccination began in 2006.
 
Each year in the United States, more than 30,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed, including cervical, anal, vulvar, head and neck, penile and vaginal cancers. Additionally, HPV infections cause genital warts, are responsible for millions of abnormal Pap smears every year and result in more than $8 billion spent treating HPV-related disease.
                                                           
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Just imagine the number of cancers we could prevent if we could substantially increase vaccination rates. So why are so few parents in the United States opting to protect their children? There are several factors at work. HPV is transmitted sexually, and many parents don’t want to think about their teens being sexually active – even in the future. Although some pediatricians are on the forefront of vaccine advocacy, others may be reluctant to push the issue or broach it with parents for the same reason. Fueled by widespread misinformation on the Internet, some parents worry about the safety of the vaccine and question its necessity. Others think their insurance won’t cover it.
 
Consider the facts:
 
*  The HPV vaccine is one of only two vaccines that actually prevent cancer. The vaccine is not nearly as effective once a person becomes sexually active.
*  The vaccine is extremely safe, perhaps the most scrutinized vaccine in history.
*  Most insurance plans cover it.
 
HPV is extremely common; about 80 percent of everyone who has had sex will be infected. Any type of intimate sexual contact can cause HPV infections and intercourse is not necessary to become infected. About 79 million Americans currently are infected, and 14 million become newly infected each year. Most people never know they have the infection and it goes away on its own. But in some cases it can lead to cancers or genital warts. Actor Michael Douglas recently announced that his throat cancer was caused by HPV.
 
The two versions of the HPV vaccine currently available target HPV types 16 and 18, which cause 77 percent of cervical cancers in the United States (as well as causing vaginal, vulvar, anal and head and neck cancer). ACIP recommends routine vaccination of 11- and 12-year-old girls and boys and catch-up vaccination for females 13 to 26 and males 13 to 21.
 
Extensive studies show the HPV vaccine is safe. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) continues to track reports of adverse events related to HPV and all vaccines to monitor safety issues. To date, there are no major concerns about the vaccine.
 
How often do we have the opportunity to nearly wipe out a type of cancer with something as simple and safe as a vaccine?  We have that rare opportunity with HPV-related cancers in the next generation of adults. Let’s not miss out.
 
Goff is president of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology.