Debunking the Myths Surrounding the HPV Vaccine
As a dentist, I feel one of the most important parts of my job is the oral cancer screening. At every patient exam, I conduct a thorough and detailed overview of hard and soft tissues which includes evaluation to make sure I do not see any signs of oral cancer. It is simple, short and easy and yet, doing it regularly can save lives.
I am passionate about the early detection of oral cancer. I know what implications this type of aggressive and devastating cancer can have on the lives of my patients, especially if not detected as early as possible. So in the same spirit of passion, I also am an advocate for the HPV vaccine. This vaccine came out in 2006, while I was still in college.
The HPV vaccine contains proteins that look similar to the human papilloma virus, the virus whose presence is strongly correlated with many different types of cancer. According to the World Health Organization, “Two HPV types (16 and 18) cause 70% of cervical cancers and precancerous cervical lesions.” The American Cancer Society has stated that Gardasil 9, the only HPV vaccine currently available in the US, helps prevent infection by 4 types of HPV (16, 18, 6 and 11), plus 5 other high risk (associated with cancer) types: 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58. Together these types cause about 90% of cervical cancers.
This vaccine, which can be two or three doses, depending on what age you get them, is extremely effective. The CDC’s research shows that “clinical trials showed HPV vaccines provide close to 100% protection against cervical precancers and genital warts. Since the first HPV vaccine was recommended in 2006, there has been a 64% reduction in vaccine-type HPV infections among teen girls in the United States.”
But, because this vaccine is so new, there are some prevalent myths surrounding this vaccine limiting its use and ability.
As doctors who see patients regularly, at our recall appointments, we are in a unique position to be exceptional advocates for this preventative medicine. We can debunk these myths:
Myth #1 – Only girls need it.
This vaccine is recommended for both girls and boys. The CDC states “the vaccination series can be started at age 9 years. Teen boys and girls who did not get vaccinated when they were younger should get it now. HPV vaccine is recommended for young women through age 26, and young men through age 21.” The optimal time to get it is between the ages of 11-12 years old. The vaccine helps prevent cervical, vulvular, vaginal, anal, penile and oropharyngeal cancers. This is not a singular gender problem.
Myth #2- I do not need it if I have a low sexual risk profile.
This vaccine is recommended for everyone, not just those categorized with high risk sexual behaviors. I feel like this is the most prevalent myth of all, as many people I know in my age group were told this from medical professionals themselves. I remember my PA who was by PCP at the time, in 2007 during college told me about the vaccine. She told me that she recommended it for people with multiple sexual partners or in non-celibate relationships. This is simply not the case. HPV infections are incredibly common, regardless of behavior or lifestyle. The CDC states “HPV infections are so common that nearly all men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. Most people never know that they have been infected and may give HPV to a sex partner without knowing it. Nearly 80 million Americans are currently infected with some type of HPV. About 14 million people in the United States become newly infected each year.”
Myth #3- I cannot afford it.
Many insurances do have coverage for the vaccine, per the national guidelines. Your insurance plan may require a co-pay or co-insurance but most plans have some to full coverage for the vaccine, according to the American Cancer Society. If you have patients who cannot afford the vaccine, they may check one of two places. Merck, the company that makes Gardasil 9, has a program to help young adults who are uninsured afford the vaccine. Additionally, the federal Vaccines for Children (VFC) program provides free vaccines to children and teens younger than 19 years of age, who are either Medicaid-eligible, American Indian or Alaska Native, or uninsured. (You can find more info at www.cdc.gov/vaccines/programs/vfc/contacts-state.html, or by calling 1-800-232-4636.)
The HPV vaccine has the potential to change our collective health very significantly. This resource is present, available and well researched. For a profession which has a been a pillar of preventative medicine, this vaccine is an amazing opportunity to impact change in the lives of our patients.