Camille E. Introcaso, M.D.
Here’s a scenario to consider: you are in the pediatrician’s office with your pre-teen son or daughter. The doctor tells you that it is time for your child to get the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine as part of their routine childhood vaccinations.
What should you do? As a parent, you want to make the best possible decisions for your child’s health. You want to protect them from disease, and you want to make sure that any vaccines that they receive are safe and necessary. But you might have heard conflicting things about the HPV vaccine. Here at Pennsylvania Centre for Dermatology, we treat cancers, genital warts, and other conditions caused by HPV infection, and the other providers and I often get questions from our patients about the safety and necessity of the HPV vaccine. Those questions led to our deciding to write this blog entry—we want to give you accurate, current information about how to prevent the many conditions, including cancers, caused by HPV infection.
I have a unique perspective on the HPV vaccine. First, as a parent myself, I know first-hand how important children’s health and safety are to their parents. We ask ourselves “Is a vaccine really necessary? Is it safe?” We all want to make the best decisions for our children. So it’s the right thing to do to make sure you understand the risks of HPV infection, and the benefits and risks of the vaccine.
As a dermatologist, I see the effects of HPV infection on a regular basis. HPV infection causes genital warts, cervical pre-cancers and cancer, and pre-cancers and cancers of the vagina, anus, penis and parts of the throat. These conditions range from uncomfortable to life-threatening, and although most can be detected and treated, it is always better to avoid them in the first place. Each time I talk to a patient who has one of these conditions, I wish the disease had been prevented. I know how people can suffer when they have an HPV-related condition or cancer.
Finally, as a former researcher at CDC in the Division of Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention who worked specifically on HPV infection and vaccination safety, I understand the scientific facts that have been well-established about the HPV infection and the HPV vaccination. I know the HPV vaccine is safe and effective from examining the available information myself.
Let’s go over those facts now. First, HPV is a virus that lives on the skin and can be spread to another person by skin-to-skin contact. Genital HPV infections are common, and for many people they can be difficult to avoid. CDC says that genital HPV infections are so common that almost all sexually active people will have at least one type of HPV infection at some point in their lives. Many of these infections will go away on their own, but some will cause diseases, including cancer. Second, often people who have genital HPV infection don’t know that they have it; some people won’t have any symptoms for months or years, or the symptoms won’t be recognized as HPV infection. Finally, although correct, consistent use of condoms does decrease the risk of HPV infection, the virus can live on the skin in a place that is not covered by a condom, so even “safe sex” does not 100% protect against HPV infection. In fact, a person does not have to have sex, just genital skin-to-skin contact, to get HPV infection. So even if someone wants to be responsible and protect themselves from being sexually exposed to HPV, avoiding it can be challenging.
If it is difficult to avoid HPV infection, can the vaccine help keep people healthy? Yes, definitely. The HPV vaccine Gardasil-9 prevents infection with the 9 most common HPV types that cause disease; this vaccine has been proven in rigorous, long-term studies to prevent genital warts, cervical cancers, and the other HPV-related genital and throat cancers I mentioned above. Just in the decade since the HPV vaccine was introduced in the U.S., we have already seen a decrease in the number of infections caused by the HPV types that are prevented by the vaccine, and related conditions for the population as a whole. The HPV vaccine prevents cancer – that’s an amazing thing to think about! Cancer can cause so much suffering, and here we are with a way not just to treat it, but to PREVENT it.
What about the safety of the vaccine? Is it safe to get, and perhaps even more important to ask, is it safe to give to our children? Again, the answer is yes, definitely. There are three different HPV vaccines, and all three have been studied extensively in the U.S. and abroad, and the benefits of the vaccines in both boys and girls far outweigh the potential risks. More than 80 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been given in the U.S. since 2006, and the most common side effects were pain, redness or swelling at the site where the injection was given, similar to other vaccines. Beyond just the HPV vaccine, all vaccines that are part of the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics routine childhood vaccination recommendations are very safe. It is clear that there is no link between vaccines and autism, and the risks of NOT vaccinating a child against HPV or other vaccine preventable diseases are well-established and significant.
So when I am in the scenario we started with, talking with my child’s pediatrician about the HPV vaccine, I know what my family’s decision will be. I feel confident that the benefits of being protected against HPV infections and related conditions and cancers are well worth the small risks of the vaccination, and that saying yes to the HPV vaccination is the best decision I can make for my child.
If you have questions about anything I’ve written above, or about the details of the studies of HPV infection or vaccination, please contact your provider here at Pennsylvania Centre for Dermatology, your own primary care provider, or your child’s pediatrician; or review the high-quality information on-line at the CDC’s HPV vaccine website.