The following article is sponsored by University of Utah Health Care.
By Natalie Dicou
Not too shabby: More than 98% of Utah’s kindergartners received the MMR vaccine in time for the 2013-2014 school year, ranking Utah as one of the best states at warding off measles, mumps and rubella, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But the Beehive State isn’t at the top of the class in another immunization category — quite the contrary.
Utah is dead-last in boys receiving the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. Only 11% of Utah’s males, ages 13-17, received the first of three doses of this important immunization, according to CDC numbers from 2013. Rhode Island led the way with 69.3% that year.
Utah’s girls are also among the nation’s least protected with 44.3% receiving the first HPV shot, and only 20.5% following up and getting all three doses in 2013.
“It’s a wonderful vaccine that not enough people are taking advantage of,” said Nathan Bexfield, M.D., a pediatrician at the University of Utah Health Care South Jordan Health Center. “It’s one of the newer vaccines that we have out there so people are a little more skeptical about it, but it’s a very safe, very effective vaccination that should be given to both girls and boys to prevent disease. If people just look at it like that, it makes perfect sense that you would protect your child from a preventable disease that could end up hurting them in the future.”
But doesn’t the vaccine only protect against cervical cancer, a strictly female disease that strikes more than 11,000 women in the U.S. each year?
Actually, HPV — the most common sexually transmitted infection— can cause cancers of the anus, mouth, throat and penis in addition to the cervix. According to the CDC, more than 9,000 men are affected by cancers caused by HPV every year. The virus is also the main cause of genital warts, which, of course, doesn’t discriminate between the sexes.
In addition to lowering men’s chances of getting HPV-related cancers or warts, Bexfield pointed out that vaccinating boys means they won’t pass the virus to female partners down the road.
“HPV is so closely tied to cervical cancer that you don’t realize that boys should get vaccinated too,” said Molli, a mother of two preteen sons and a 14-year-old daughter, who recently took her kids in for checkups. “Of course we made sure our daughter got it, but I was a little surprised to hear our boys should get it too, especially since they’re nowhere close to [being sexual active].”
Sexually active or years away from a first kiss, kids should get vaccinated, Bexfield said — especially when cancer may be on the line.
“Parents think the best of their children,” Bexfield said. “They think Johnny or Sally is never going to be involved in any sexual activity until they’re married, and when they do, it will be with someone who has never had sexual activity.”
As we know, that’s not always how it turns out.
Bexfield recommends young people get vaccinated for HPV between ages 9-26.
Ideally, the sweet spot is ages 11-12 because the vaccine produces the best immune response at this age and because it must be given before an individual is exposed to the virus, so the earlier the better.
Given in three doses over six months, mild side effects include pain in the arm where the shot was given, fever, dizziness and nausea.
“I’m glad we got all three kids vaccinated,” Molli said. “It’s one less thing to worry about.”
Nationwide, 79 million people have the HPV virus. World Immunization Week is April 24-30.