That’s right, there is a vaccine against cancer, and it’s been on the market since 2006. This vaccine protects against the most dangerous types of human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted virus often referred to as HPV.
The HPV virus is the most common sexually transmitted disease affecting Canadians; nearly 75% of them will contract an HPV infection at some point in their lives, most of which will resolve themselves without trouble. The real danger lies in the handful of HPV strains which have the potential to cause a variety of cancers. Amongst them, cervical cancer headlines the lineup of HPV-related malignancies, which also includes the likes of vaginal, anal, penile, and oral cancers.
Fortunately, this vaccine has been shown to not only be highly effective at preventing HPV infection, it has also been proven to be as safe as other run-of-the-mill vaccines which are commonly given to children as part of the recommended immunization schedule.
Yet, even as the 21st century has seen its fair share of anti-vaxxing parents, HPV vaccination rates remain lower than that of other pediatrician-recommended vaccines across the country. For instance, while the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine has a vaccination rate of more than 90% across Canada, some provinces have HPV immunization rates reaching as low as 46%. So why are some parents still opting out of the HPV vaccine for their kids, but not other vaccines?
The culprits: stigma and misinformation. Many parents are reticent to vaccinate their pre-pubescent children against a sexually transmitted disease such as HPV, either because they think their children are years away from being sexually active or simply because they are uncomfortable with the subject. However, HPV immunization is most effective when it is done before becoming sexually active, which is why the HPV vaccine should be given to children. If parents knew that early HPV vaccination could protect their children from cancer, perhaps more would be willing to have important, albeit potentially awkward conversations about sexual health with their children.
Some parents may also believe that this vaccine might encourage their kids to become sexually active at a younger age or partake in riskier sexual behaviors. However, several studies have refuted these misconceptions, and parents who opt out of vaccinating their children are only doing them a disservice.
These apprehensive parents may not be entirely to blame, though. The HPV vaccine has been widely marketed as a protection against an STD; although vaccination campaigns have been aimed at young boys and girls who haven’t reached sexual maturity, the vaccine has also been targeted to high-risk groups such as men who have sex with men, transgender individuals, and individuals who partake in “street” activities. Some parents may therefore develop a negative bias towards this specific vaccine, as its marketing overshadows the fact that it is actually aimed at nipping cancer in the bud. And maybe if these parents saw it that way, their dilemma would become a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want to protect their child from a preventable disease, never mind cancer?
Here’s what parents with young children need to know: The HPV vaccine is safe and effective at preventing HPV and several cancers, and it certainly won’t change your children’s sexual behaviour. Remember to ask your child’s pediatrician about the HPV vaccine and the diseases it prevents. Don’t shy away from the occasional awkward conversation. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to vaccinate — your children are counting on you.
Alexandre Grant is studying Microbiology and Immunology at McGill University.
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