You would think that when parents are told of a vaccine that could prevent future cancers in their children, they would leap at the chance to protect them. Statistics show that isn’t always the case for the shot that prevents human papilloma virus, or HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection.
As a gynecologic oncologist, Dr. Brent DuBeshter of the University of Rochester Medical Center has treated many women with reproductive health concerns. When routine tests detect HPV, DuBeshter said he can immediately tell an important step was missed in the patient’s early years: getting the HPV vaccine.
“We’re leaving most of our kids totally unprotected from what could be a terrible disease. To me, that’s unimaginable,” said DuBeshter.
About 14 million Americans become newly infected with HPV each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and nearly 80 million Americans are currently infected. The CDC recommends boys and girls get three doses of the vaccine starting at age 11 or 12. It’s covered by medical insurance or a federal program designed to help kids in need. Still, research by URMC shows that 72,000 high school students in Monroe County and 86,000 college students in the Rochester region are unvaccinated.
There are more than 100 types of HPV and some of the strains can lead to cervical, throat and mouth cancers. While the vaccine was created to help block nine of these cancer-causing strains, not everyone supports it. Some parents say they have personal or religious objections. Others can’t fathom the idea that their preteen could be having sex.
“Parents may not want to think that’s happening until after the kids are married, but we all know better,” said DuBeshter.
Wynette Vickers, of Brighton, has two daughters, ages 6 and 12. She said a pediatrician at Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong highly recommended the shot during her older daughter Keniyah’s physical appointment last November.
“When she mentioned it, Keniyah was sitting there, and (she’s) like, ‘Oh no! Not another vaccine, Mom. No!’ ” said Vickers.
The doctor, however, continued to explain. Soon, Vickers and Keniyah became comfortable enough to get the first dose taken care of on the same day. But it wasn’t without issue.
“She felt light-headed, she had a bad migraine. I tried to make her a broth, or make her some tea, she usually feels better with that, but she actually threw up a few times,” said Vickers, “I called the pediatrician like, ‘This vaccine made my baby sick. Now what are you going to do?’ ”
Keniyah’s illness ran its course for two days. Vickers ultimately decided her daughter would continue the process, and allowed for a second dose two months later, and a third dose six months after that.
“If I can prevent my child from having to go through (cancer) when she’s already trying to figure out who she is as a woman, it was beneficial for me,” Vickers explained.
Pediatricians like Dr. Cynthia Rand at the same medical group say a reaction of that degree to the HPV vaccine is generally uncommon.
“In our office, once every two months or so, an adolescent will feel a little bit woozy. As soon as they feel a little bit faint, we have them lie down on the table and they’re fine afterward,” said Rand.
Rand has been spending much of her time doing extensive research on the vaccine. She works with private practices and medical centers around the country, to help them try to raise their HPV vaccination rates.
“Nationally, 50 percent of boys have had one dose and 62 percent of girls have had one dose. And 42 percent of girls have had three doses and 28 percent of boys have had three doses,” said Rand.
She said doctors are missing an easy opportunity to vaccinate preteens at the same time as the recommended Tdap booster shots for tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough. At 87 percent, it sees a much higher vaccination rate.
The CDC points out that the HPV shot has been close to 100 percent effective in preventing cancer.
No one is more pleased with that result than Dr. William Bonnez. He’s one of three physicians who worked for more than two decades on the technology behind the vaccine, before the Food and Drug Administration approved the discovery 10 years ago.
“It was very impressive, really beyond what we were expecting. Impressive because all the women who received the vaccine didn’t develop an infection, whereas the ones who were not being vaccinated – a number of them developed an infection,” said Bonnez.
Many people with HPV don't develop any symptoms but can still infect others through sexual contact. Symptoms may include warts on the genitals or surrounding skin.
When HPV is diagnosed in a patient, doctors conduct a number of tests followed by a series of treatments. For the 10 percent who don’t clear the infection, DuBeshter said it’s heartbreaking to deliver the news.
“I never want to see another young woman in the prime of their lives, usually they have young kids at home, who gets this type of a cancer where I know that it could’ve been preventable.”
The annual Ovarian and Gynecologic Cancers 5K race takes place at 8:15 a.m. on Saturday, September 10 at Monroe Community College. Each year, proceeds provide diversionary activities to more than 15,000 Rochester-area cancer patients and their families. You can register here or on site.