Since the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine became available to the public, some parents of young children have hesitated to get it for their daughters. While some were dismayed by the high cost, which is usually not covered by insurance, others wondered if their children really needed to be immunized.

Assessing public health

According to Dr. Howard Bailey, the immediate past chair of the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Cancer Prevention Committee, parents may want to consider the risk they're taking by passing on this safeguard.

“‘When the vaccine is administered at younger ages, the immune response is stronger than when given at after the age of 18.’”

“If we stop HPV infections, then we can prevent cervical cancer and many head and neck cancers,” says Bailey. “HPV literally causes many types of cancer — the most common being cervical cancer (a half-million cases per year worldwide) and, in the United States, oropharyngeal cancers. In this country, thousands of men and women who use tobacco are developing these cancers and they are usually from HPV.

“Far too many people are dying of these cancers in the United States and worldwide, and the HPV vaccination is our best opportunity to prevent these deaths.”

Why vaccinate early?

Many parents who complain that children aged 11 or 12 are too young to get the vaccine are overlooking two important details. “When the vaccine is administered at younger ages, the immune response is stronger than when given at after the age of 18,” says Bailey. “Even more importantly, the vaccine doesn’t treat an already present HPV infection, but it is nearly 100 percent effective if given prior to any sexual exposure.”

While Bailey understands the concern, he still hopes all parents will choose to vaccinate their children. “As an oncologist, my job is to hopefully help prevent someone from dying of an HPV-caused cancer, and vaccination is our best chance to prevent that from happening. While I respect their right to be cautious, the risks of the disease — in this case, lethal cancer — far outweigh the potential risks of the vaccine.”