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The opinions expressed in commentaries on Raven Radio are those of the author, and are not necessarily shared by the station’s board, staff, or volunteers.

Ryan Wallace is a medical student at the University of Washington who spent six weeks working in Sitka this spring. He urges listeners to check with the Centers for Disease Control for guidelines on the HPV vaccine, which is now recommended for both girls and boys at around 11-12 years of age.

The Human Papillomavirus Vaccine

Hi, my name is Ryan Wallace. I’m a medical student from the University of Washington and I’ve been in Sitka for the past six weeks at SEARHC studying family practice medicine. I’d like to take a few minutes to discuss an issue that has been a recurring theme in the medical community over the past seven years: HPV vaccination. As a future physician I believe that vaccinating all children against HPV, boys and girls, will improve the overall health of our society, reduce the prevalence of cancer, and consequently reduce healthcare costs.

The Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, is a very common virus. It is readily spread through sexual contact and is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Twenty-seven percent of sexually active men and women have the virus at any given time, though many don’t know it. There are many forms of the virus, over 40 of which can lead to genital infections. HPV is commonly known to cause genital warts but it is also associated with numerous cancers. Each year as a result of HPV infection, there are over 18,000 cases of cancer diagnosed in women, most commonly cervical cancer, and over 8,000 cases of cancer diagnosed in men, most commonly penile and oropharyngeal cancers.

Fortunately, in 2006, a vaccine named Gardasil was recommended for use in girls by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to protect against the most common and high-risk forms of HPV. More recently, the CDC expanded their recommendations to include boys as well. The hope was that with widespread vaccination, the prevalence of HPV and consequently the morbidity, mortality and costs associated with HPV infection and its sequelae would be reduced.

Unfortunately, there has been strong resistance to this vaccine and only approximately 35% of girls and less than 1% of boys between 13-17 years of age have been vaccinated. Generally speaking, there are two reasons why people oppose HPV vaccination. First, many Americans are untrusting of vaccinations in general. Much of this distrust originated in a study that alleged an association between a single vaccination (the MMR vaccine) and autism. While the link between autism and vaccination has since been discredited and the study retracted, the general distrust for all vaccinations arising from that flawed study has been perpetuated by numerous celebrities. Most notably Jenny McCarthy, Hugh Hefner, Britney Spears, and Charlie Sheen have all come forward to support the anti-vaccination movement.

Furthermore, political figures, most notably Michelle Bachmann, have brought the safety of vaccinations into question on a national level.

Consequently, there is a real trend in this country to not vaccinate our children, putting our children at increased risk for preventable diseases, as evidenced by the recent Pertussis (whooping cough) outbreak.

The second major reason people oppose HPV vaccination is because it concerns sex in adolescence. Some people say that by vaccinating a child it implies that parents are okay with their children being sexually active. Of course, HPV is a sexually transmitted infection and to protect against it is to acknowledge or admit our children are having sex. This is something that is not easy to do. Not only is it difficult for parents, it may be difficult for healthcare providers to discuss this subject. Similarly, as the incidence of HPV is higher among men who have sex with men, there are some that oppose the vaccine due to attitudes or beliefs regarding homosexuality.

Vaccinating our children against HPV isn’t about condoning sex in teenagers or approving a particular sexual orientation – vaccination is about utilizing an easy tool to decrease cancer and save lives and money. The CDC currently recommends vaccinating all boys and girls against HPV, ideally at 11 or 12 years of age.

I would encourage parents to think about vaccinating their children against HPV if they haven’t done so already. Over 26,000 cases of cancer are potentially preventable. It should be a priority for parents, healthcare professionals, and society as a whole not to miss this opportunity. If you have questions about the HPV vaccine or vaccines in general you can ask your healthcare provider or check out the CDC website.

Thank you.

The opinions expressed in commentaries on Raven Radio are those of the author, and are not necessarily shared by the station’s board, staff, or volunteers.