How to Prevent Your Kids from Getting Cancer


Clinical Advisor

One type of cancer anyway – get them vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV). The HPV vaccine is now recommended for both girls and boys. The virus provokes the development of cancer, so the vaccine helps prevent cervical cancer in women and head and neck cancer in men. In 2010, (the latest figure) 11,818 women in the U.S. were diagnosed cervical cancer and 3,939 died of it. It is estimated that more than 2,370 new cases of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed in women and nearly 9,356 are diagnosed in men each year in the United States. Despite the well-known benefits of the vaccine, only 38 percent of American girls and just 14 percent of boys between the ages of 13 and 17 have been fully vaccinated.

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have published recent terrific op-eds explaining the benefits of HPV vaccination for your kids. In the Times, pediatrician Paul Offit suggests that parents and physicians are squeamish about HPV vaccination since the disease is sexually transmitted. His tart reply: It's not about sex; it's about cancer. He points out:

About 79 million people in the United States have been infected with HPV, and 14 million new infections occur every year. As a consequence, 18,000 women and 8,000 men suffer preventable cancers of the cervix, anus, penis and throat; it's the most common, and except for H.I.V., the most fatal sexually transmitted disease….

The fact remains that millions of adolescents aren't getting a vaccine to prevent a known cause of cancer. It takes about 20 years for an HPV infection to progress to cancer. That's when the bill is due. Given current rates of immunization, somewhere around 2,000 adults every year whose parents had chosen not to give them the HPV vaccine will probably die from a preventable cancer. It's unconscionable. And doctors will have only themselves to blame.

In the Post, New America Foundation fellow Meredith Wadman concurs and explains why she has had her sons vaccinated well before puberty:

When I had my sons vaccinated, it was partly with girls in mind. After all, if fewer young men are infected, fewer young women will be exposed to the virus that causes cervical cancer — currently the most common cancer prevented by the vaccine. But now I am realizing that HPV poses a growing risk to boys.

A new breed of cancer of the back of the tongue and tonsils, caused by HPV, is rising in incidence — likely caused, researchers suspect, by increases in premarital sex and oral sex over the past several decades. These cancers afflict men far more often than women, and at relatively younger ages than do other head and neck cancers, which typically appear in men older than 60. Middle-aged men who don't die from their HPV-linked cancer often must live for years with the side effects of intensive chemotherapy and radiation delivered to the back of the throat. These can include the permanent inability to swallow and the appearance later of new, aggressive, radiation-induced cancers.

Not getting your kids vaccinated against this disease is, as Dr. Offit points out, unconscionable.

Go here to see Reason's debate, Should Vaccines Be Mandatory?

Disclosure: A friend just finished a brutal round of radiation and chemo to treat his HPV-associated head and neck cancer. Go get your kids vaccinated!