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William Schaffner, M.D.

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Repeat After Me: HPV Is an Anti-Cancer Vaccine

Posted: 11/14/11 11:37 AM ET

The recent vote by the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) to extend routine HPV vaccination to boys and young men is a victory for our children. Adolescents immunized today will be protected from a range of cancers that would otherwise start appearing in their 30s, 40s, 50s and so on.

Putting politics and personal notions about appropriate sexual behavior aside leaves me with this fact: HPV vaccine is a safe and effective way to prevent cancer. How can anyone be against that?

Forget what you know about HPV for a minute and ask yourself how you would feel about a vaccine that could prevent seven out of every 10 cases of breast cancer -- it works best when it's given to girls at 11 or 12 because that's when they get the best immune response. Would you be against it? Would anyone?

Perhaps this is even a better example: What if the vaccine could stop most lung cancers, but only if kids get it before they try even one cigarette? Because one might be all it takes to damage your child's lung tissue and start a process that could lead to lung cancer. You don't think your kid will ever smoke? Consider this: Every day, about 4,000 American adolescents 12 and 17 years old try their first cigarette. Should a child who makes one bad choice -- tries that one cigarette -- pay the ultimate price decades later when we had the means to protect him?

Don't assume I don't understand the challenge for parents here. I understand completely that 11 or 12 is a tender age and that we have a hard time applying this concept to the HPV vaccine. But really, it's no different than for any other vaccine. You need to get the measles, mumps or polio vaccine before you are exposed to those viruses or they will not work.

Adolescents need to complete the HPV vaccination series before they initiate their sex lives. I'm a father; I understand that we'd like to think that it won't happen until around age 34, particularly for our daughters. We need to get past that.

The HPV vaccine prevents cancer. I keep saying that because it excites me tremendously that we can prevent cancer with vaccines. It should be every parent's mantra, "I can protect my child from cancer. I can protect my child from cancer."

Now please go protect your girls and boys against this virus. You'll be helping them avoid cervical, penile, anal, vulva and vaginal cancer as well as oral, throat and maybe skin cancer, too.