What if a single vaccine could protect your child (or yourself) from many different types of painful, potentially fatal, cancers?
We’ll, it’s not a “what if” situation: the human papillomavirus vaccine — a.k.a. the HPV vaccine known as Gardasil — is an actual cancer vaccine. It’s pretty revolutionary, it’s been available for over 10 years, and it’s essentially a “silver bullet” for cancer.
What Is HPV?
HPV is the human papillomavirus. It’s technically a sexually transmitted virus, although when it’s active it’s very easy to catch (no intercourse required, although it helps). The first thing it causes are genital warts, which can be removed. The initial symptoms of many HPV infections clear up and disappear.
But the havoc HPV can cause later down the line is the real worry.
There are over 40 different strains of the HPV virus, and about ten of them have been very definitively linked to a bunch of very nasty cancers.
According to current medical research, here are some of the cancers that are linked to HPV:
The CDC estimates that HPV is responsible for about 5% of cancers internationally, and that about 79 million Americans are infected. Of those people, about 49,000 are diagnosed with a cancer causally linked to their HPV infection. That’s a lot of people, and a lot of cancer.
And, if you’ve really checked out that list above, you’ll see some cancers on there really get you where you live. Anal cancer, for instance, is what actress and cultural icon Farrah Fawcett died from, and what the actress Marcia Cross (Melrose Place; Desperate Housewives) is battling now. And while many of them seem gender-specific, like cervical, vulvar, and penile, some are not. Everyone has an anus and a mouth (oropharyngeal); this can hit everyone.
The Latest on Gardasil
Since 2006, at least 42 states have introduced legislation requiring HPV vaccination, funding of the vaccine or educating the public and school children about the HPV vaccine. At least 25 states have enacted this legislation.
Gardasil was first introduced in 2006. It was initially viewed with suspicion, both because of unfounded vaccine related paranoia and because people associate HPV with sex. By now, though, it’s been around and has a proven safety and success rate.
Gardasil is a series of shots, two and sometimes three, given when a child is about 11. The idea is to gain immunity against the cancer causing HPV strains before any sort of contact can happen. Remember: HPV is easier to catch than a standard STD.
According to the CDC, Gardasil is recommended through age 26 for women and through age 21 for men (although that’s changing). If you didn’t get vaccinated at around 11 or 12, the CDC recommends Gardasil for young adults who:
- Have sex with men
- Are transgender
- Have weakened immune systems
In 2018, the FDA added on another layer: adults aged 27-45 were now eligible to get vaccinated. This is excellent news for adults who, perhaps, are emerging from a long term relationship and beginning to date once again. Because, after all, nothing is going to ruin your new dating life like catching HPV and all its associated problems.
Like any immunization, Gardasil can cause some minor, temporary side effects, like pain and swelling at the vaccination site, nausea, dizziness, and headaches.
There’s Overwhelming Evidence of Safety
There’s lots of vaccination paranoia worldwide, even though there’s overwhelming evidence vaccines are safe for almost everyone (with exceptions for the immunosuppressed); the benefits of cancer protection far outweigh any other risks associated with Gardasil.
There have been plenty of studies that find no link between vaccines like Gardasil and other illnesses.
For instance, a very large 2017 study in Norway in Vaccine found no link between chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis and Gardasil.
Another, even larger 2017 study in Vaccine was done in France with an enormous sample of two million girls. This study was looking for a link between the vaccine and autoimmune disease, but found none.
Going back in time further, a 2012 study in the Archive of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine tracked 200,000 girls from initial immunization to two weeks after. The only thing they found were skin infections; other illnesses had been diagnosed prior to getting the shot.
One concern has been a supposed link between primary ovarian insufficiency (POI) and Gardasil. POI is a type of early menopause which causes early infertility. The CDC lists many reasons for this problem, from genetics to cancer treatments to smoking.
One thing the CDC hasn’t found is a credible link to Gardasil.
“Between December 1, 2014 and Dec 31, 2017, when 29 million doses of Gardasil 9 had been distributed in the United States, VAERS received 3 reports of POI following Gardasil 9 vaccination. The 3 reports were determined to be hearsay reports, meaning there was not enough information to confirm a diagnosis of POI,” the CDC website states.
Finally, one 2016 study focused just on the supposed link between vaccines generally and myelitis (inflammation of the spinal cord). The study, in Clinical Infectious Diseases, looked at 64 million vaccine doses. The decisive sentence in its conclusion read: “We found no association between TM and prior immunization.”
Immunization Rates Are Still Low
So, Gardasil is safe. It protects against the most dangerous range of HPV critters. And, it’s actually going to protect you and yours against developing a plethora of nasty cancers later in life.
Currently, the vaccination rate for Gardasil stands at about 50%, although the CDC estimates that, even with that rate, which is well below effective herd immunity thresholds, the shot has still reduced the dangerous HPV rates by 86%.
With such amazing results, why are the vaccination rates still low?
There’s a variety of reasons.
One reason might be the same as for all vaccines: there are multiple shots. Sometimes, parents have difficulty making multiple appointments for vaccines. Maybe they move a lot, or are undocumented and unsure of where to get the shots. Maybe they don’t have insurance and the cost is prohibitive.
Another reason, Planned Parenthood points out, probably stems from discomfort regarding connecting our children with sex. It states this on its website:
“One of the reasons the HPV vaccine is controversial is because it prevents a sexually transmitted infection, which leads some people to believe it’s inappropriate for children. But, the thing is, the vaccine works best if you get it long before you have sex. So it’s a good idea to get it when you’re young so you won’t have to worry about getting certain kinds of cancer later in life.
Studies show that the HPV vaccine doesn’t lead to people having more sex or sex at a younger age. So giving kids the HPV vaccine doesn’t encourage them to have sex. All it does is help protect them from genital warts and cancer in adulthood.”
Dr. Dave Fuchs, both a doctor and a parent, understands the hesitance on the parents’ part, but sees it as an issue of knowledge and education.
“I vaccinated my kids,” Fuchs tells Parentology. “I see the HPV vaccine as high reward and low risk. But, many parents feel it’s different because it’s vaccinating against a sexually transmitted disease, and vaccinating their child who isn’t yet sexually active. It’s the parent’s decision, and they should do their due diligence on the risks and benefits by looking up facts. The best source I know of is the CDC’s vaccination statement. They do a really good job.”
And Let’s Not Forget the Boys
There tends to be a disconnect when it comes to Gardasil and immunizing boys. Perhaps it’s because the warts (and cervical cancer) show up in the female population, so the male role in spreading HPV gets ignored.
The fact of the matter is, boys are carriers of HPV just as much as girls. They are often asymptomatic, but if they contract certain strains of HPV, they are very vulnerable to developing penile, anal, and oropharyngeal cancers, all of which are horrible.
According to the CDC, oropharyngeal cancer, or throat cancer, is thought to be responsible for about 70% of all throat cancers. It gets its start through oral HPV, caught through oral sexual contact, and it’s estimated that 10% of men and 3.6% of women have oral HPV. Obviously, males seem more vulnerable to this risk.
Are there guarantees that Gardasil will protect you or your child from developing these cancers? Not yet, but the data is pretty compelling.
As the AMA Journal of Ethics put it:
“One of the best ways to combat this stigma is by teaching that HPV infection has a well-established link to various cancers, that it is preventable, and that primary prevention is needed to reduce its incidence. We need to standardize acceptance of the HPV vaccine so that one day the cancers associated with HPV infection will be a distant memory.”