Taking a Shot Against Cancer

Taking a Shot Against Cancer

Smoking cigarettes and getting sunburns are well known risks for cancer. Many people don’t know, however, that some viruses can cause cancer.

The Hepatitis B virus, which is spread by sharing contaminated needles (IV drug use), unprotected sex or childbirth, can cause liver cancer. It is recommended that all children receive the Hepatitis B vaccine for lifelong protection against the virus.

Another virus that causes cancer is the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. According to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, twenty million Americans are currently infected with HPV, and 6 million are newly infected each year, half of whom are 15-24 years old. Most of the time, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems.

Sometimes, however, it sticks around. There are about 100 different strains of HPV that can cause different health problems. Some strains, called “low- risk”, can cause genital warts. These warts are raised bumps that can be treated with topical therapies. About 1 in every 100 sexually active adults has HPV warts at any time in the US.

Other strains of the virus are more dangerous. These can cause cancer, including cancers of the genital tract in men and women, as well as cancer of the throat, tongue and tonsils (“oropharynx”). These cancers can take years or even decades to develop.

HPV cancers are not rare. According to the CDC, between 2008-2012, about 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed every year in the US, with about 59% occurring in females. The most common types were cancers of the cervix and oropharynx.

Treatment of HPV-related infections also costs a lot of money. About 8 billion dollars is spent yearly in the US on HPV, more than any other sexually transmitted infection except HIV.

The good news is, because these cancers are caused by a virus, they can be prevented by a vaccine!

The first vaccine against HPV came out in 2006 and protected against 4 strains of the virus. In 2014, this vaccine was improved to cover 9 strains, including those responsible for most cancers. These vaccines are recommended for boys and girls. Another vaccine protects against 2 strains of the virus and is recommended for girls only.

The HPV vaccine is given as a 2 or 3 shot series, starting at 11 or 12 years of age. It can be given as young as 9, and as late as 26 in females and 21 in males. Younger people have a stronger response to the vaccines. As a result, adolescents who receive the first dose before their 15th birthday need only 2 shots at least 6 months apart. When begun on or after the 15th birthday, adolescents require a 3 dose series.

HPV vaccines are highly effective and result in strong immunity to the virus and lower risk of cancer. The CDC estimates that 28,500 of the annual 38.793 HPV cancers would be prevented by the HPV-9 vaccine.

HPV vaccines have also proven very safe. As of 2014, more than 67 million doses had been distributed and millions more have been administered since then. There have been no associations with serious side effects. The most common side effects are soreness at the injection site, as well as redness and/or swelling. Some adolescents feel light-headed immediately after receiving HPV, as well as other vaccines. For that reason, it is best to be given the shot while lying down, and to remain seated for 15 minutes after the shot.

Some families have heard that the HPV vaccine is dangerous or risky. This is untrue and unfortunate, as young people have missed the opportunity to be protected from HPV cancers as a result.

The HPV vaccine is just a shot against a virus, like many other vaccines. Like the Hepatitis B vaccine, this shot protects children from cancer, a chance parents don’t get very often. Pediatricians strongly recommend that parents choose this shot against cancer for their kids. They will be grateful you did!

References and Further Reading