Immunization for HPV especially important for young children

Chafeek Tomeh, MD, is a head and neck surgical oncologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, Arizona.

Question: I heard about a virus called “HPV” and that kids should be immunized for this. What is HPV, and how do I know if my child should receive immunization? 

Answer: Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a common cause of cervical cancer in women, as well as tonsil, tongue cancer (oropharyngeal), anal cancer and genital cancers in both men and women. Medical experts recommend vaccination beginning at the age of 9 to prevent HPV-associated cancers. We know the immune system at that age is fully ready to respond and develop the proper immunity to HPV, and that vaccination is more effective when given at an early age. Though most people will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lives, national vaccination rates for the virus remain low. 

There are no symptoms associated with HPV infection until it starts forming warts or causing cancer. While women can get screened for changes on the cervix with Pap smears, there is no way to screen for the other cancers caused by the virus. Researchers are working to improve this, so hopefully there will be additional screening tools in the near future. 

Oropharyngeal cancer caused by HPV is one of the fastest growing head and neck cancers, and there are actually more men diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer each year than there are women with cervical cancer. Treatment is not easy either. Just ask any of the thousands who have had surgery to remove part of their throat, or undergone radiation over six weeks (and possibly still needed additional chemotherapy). Head and neck cancer treatment is a life changer, affecting swallowing, taste, and speech.

But, the good news is that there is a way to stop this trend. There are a few HPV vaccines available, including Cervarix, Gardasil, and Gardasil 9. Some vaccines even protect against most genital warts caused by the non-cancer causing forms of HPV (Gardasil and Gardasil 9).

New guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 9- to 12-year-old boys and girls receive two doses of the 9-valent HPV vaccine at least six months apart.  Adolescents and young adults 15 – 26 years of age should continue to complete the three-dose series over six months.  Those older than 26 can still receive the vaccine, but insurance companies typically will not cover the costs.  

It’s important to contact your primary care doctor or your child’s pediatrician for information about receiving the vaccine. If you don’t have a doctor, most pharmacies have access to provide vaccinations. For those without health insurance, most state health departments can help provide vaccinations.