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HPV-Reseacher

Courtney Banzer, 27, receives an HPV vaccine from Dana Varon at Harborview Women's Research clinic in Seattle. (Benjamin Benschneider/Seattle Times/MCT)

Parents want their kids to grow up healthy and happy. Reducing their cancer risk is a significant help, and it’s easier than you might think. By encouraging children to eat healthy, exercise and stay safe in the sun and by scheduling their recommended vaccinations, we can put them on the right path to lowering cancer risk later in life.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common sexually transmitted infection with more than 100 different strands in existence. It’s so common that an estimated nine of 10 sexually active people eventually will be infected with HPV. Often, it has no apparent symptoms, which makes it difficult to know when someone is infected. At least two strands of the virus have been shown to cause cervical, vaginal and vulva cancers in women, penile cancer in men, and head and neck cancers in both men and women. HPV can live for years in a person’s body, so someone may not know he or she has the virus, or an associated cancer, until years after being intimate with someone who carries it.

In the past decade, HPV vaccination for adolescents has been shown to protect against at least five types of cancer, including some that can cause infertility, or worse. This vaccine is now recommended for all preteens, boys and girls, during their annual checkups. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that girls and boys be vaccinated with a two-shot vaccine beginning around age 11 or 12. The second dose should be administered within a year. Three doses are recommended for those ages 15 and up. The vaccine can be administered until age 26, and being vaccinated after exposure to HPV helps to reduce the risk of contracting future HPV infections.

The HPV vaccine is safe and prevents more than 90 percent of HPV cases, greatly reducing our children’s risk of cancer. Serious side effects are rare and similar to other vaccines; commonly reported symptoms include injection-site reactions such as brief soreness, redness or swelling, dizziness, fainting, nausea and headache. Like all vaccines, HPV vaccine is monitored on an ongoing basis to make sure it remains safe and effective. Ten years of follow-up information after vaccination is available and we have no reason to believe that the HPV vaccine loses any ability to provide protection over time.

The St. Louis region has one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections in the country. Therefore, it is important for parents and guardians to learn about the HPV vaccination for their children since HPV is transmitted through sexual activity. The vaccine is most effective when given before teens become sexually active, so there’s no need to wait to vaccinate your children. As there is no cure for HPV once someone is diagnosed with it, receiving the vaccine is vital and can prevent HPV before further health concerns arise.

Unfortunately, Missouri falls well below the national average rate for HPV vaccinations. Only 55 percent of girls in the state are vaccinated, compared to 65 percent nationwide. The rate for Missouri boys is 48 percent, compared to 56 percent nationally. Illinois adolescents fare better — 69 percent of girls and 59 percent of boys are vaccinated against HPV — but they, too, would benefit from the reduction in cancer risk that comes with higher vaccination rates.

Our children are already receiving vaccinations during their preteen and teenage years. Ask your pediatrician to include the HPV vaccine during a routine checkup. And consider that your child may be leaving for college in a few short years. This is an opportune time to protect them from HPV. Your child may not recognize one more shot, but he or she may thank you in the future for reducing cancer risk.

Sadly, more than 31,000 Americans are diagnosed with HPV-related cancer each year, at times resulting in painful treatments, infertility, even death. We would wish none of this upon anyone, most especially our own children.

You can help protect them and reduce their risk. Talk with your pediatrician to schedule your child’s HPV vaccination.