By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly
When most of today's middle-aged adults were children, we averaged seven vaccine injections during our formative years. Today's youngsters will receive approximately 36 vaccine shots in the course of their childhood. And we are being told that now there is available another vaccine for our female children to guard against the human papillomaviruses infection. As parents and concerned adults, we naturally have a lot of concerns and questions about this virus, the vaccine and the protection it will have for our daughters or other young women in our lives.
First, let's discuss some of the facts that are known about the HPV virus. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that, in the United States alone, 65 million people are currently living with an incurable sexually transmitted disease. Of this number, the estimated number of people currently infected with HPV is 20 million; and women are the ones who suffer most from this STD.
Researchers have found at least 30 distinct forms of HPV that infect the genital area. Genital warts are caused by this virus, but often the victim will display no symptoms. If discovered, genital warts can be treated and cured.
Four types of cervical cancer are directly linked to the HPV virus. These four types cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers and 90 percent of all genital warts. According to a recent study of college-aged women, 14 percent were found to have contracted an HPV virus in the first year and nearly 43 percent had contracted a HPV by the end of this study three years later. Less data is available for young men, but levels of infection appear to be similar to young women. Eventually, it may be discovered that this vaccine will help protect young men as well from penile cancer and genital warts, as well as help young women avoid infection. This vaccine does not treat existing HPV infections, genital warts, pre-cancers or cancers.
This brings us to ask whether it is wise to have our young daughters and women vaccinated. In June, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted to recommend this vaccine to help prevent cervical cancers in young women. The vaccine is recommended before our daughters become sexually active, since the greatest protection comes before they are ever exposed to an HPV.
Most important for the concerned parent to remember is to bring questions to your physician or your child's pediatrician. They will have the most updated information about the HPV vaccine and will be happy to speak with you about these concerns.
In next week's article, we will have a list of frequently asked questions about HPV and the vaccine. This will give you a foundation for further discussion with your doctor or your child's pediatrician.
Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children's special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly is a hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB. This column is not intended to replace the advice of a physician.
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