HPV vaccine protects against cancer but uptake is far from viral


by Kelsey Starks


Posted on June 5, 2013 at 4:52 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jun 5 at 5:29 PM

(WHAS11) -- Actor Michael Douglas made headlines this week when he said his type of throat cancer can be caused by a sexually-transmitted disease called HPV.  Doctors say it can happen, but more importantly there's a way to prevent it. 

A first-of-its-kind vaccine against HPV that can protect against certain cancers has been on the market for years, but healthcare providers are shocked that more people aren't taking it.

Some parents are uncomfortable giving their children a vaccine against HPV, but doctors say cancer should be scarier than any vaccine.  There are few things doctors can definitively point to as a cause of cancer. But Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, is one of them.

"People are really afraid of this vaccine," Dr. Paige Hertweck, a pediatric gynecologist with Norton Healthcare said.  "It's a shame because it prevents so many disease entities."

Cervical cancer is one of them.  Ninety-nine point seven percent of all cervical cancer is from HPV.  Other HPV-related cancers like oral cancers have risen dramatically in recent years. Some doctors call it an epidemic of the 21st century.

The good news is there's a vaccine. The bad news is, few people are taking it.

"This is the most common STD in our country," Dr. Hertweck said.  "It is spread by skin-to-skin contact. Men can carry it under their fingernails.  It is silent and people don't know about it."

Years ago, the government recommended that all adolescent girls get vaccinated against HPV and more recently, they are recommending the same for young boys.  But still, around 30 percent of them get it and that's because there's a lot of confusion about the vaccine.

"I wasn't aware it was against STDs," Molly Wright said, who was vaccinated in sixth grade.  She's now 17-years-old.  "I knew it was for cancer and I was all for it because I don't want to get cancer."

Molly's mother, Julie, says the decision to vaccinate her daughter was a no-brainer for her. 

"I just don't understand," she says.  "It seems like I have heard it related to moral issues, but I just don't think there are any moral issues about preventing cancer through a vaccine."

Doctors say the vaccine carries a stigma because it protects against a sexually-transmitted disease. Some parents are concerned it would appear they are condoning sexual activity.  Doctors say the numbers don't show any such correlation.

"When parents were asked if they would use the vaccine, 44 percent said no," Dr. Hertweck said.  "This vaccine has been the slowest uptake vaccine because people are afraid. I don't know what they are afraid of.  We're preventing cancer.  That's it."

For more information on HPV or cervical cancer, click here.