Most readers are aware that a public health emergency, unimaginable 20 years ago, is now unfolding in the United States as cases of measles spread across under-immunized populations on both coasts and elsewhere.
Fewer people know that there is another, silent epidemic happening, one that plays out in slow motion, over years. This one kills at a much higher rate than even measles and causes substantial human suffering. I refer here to potentially fatal cervical cancers and other malignancies preventable by childhood immunization against the virus known as HPV.
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infects 79 million Americans. It is the predominant cause of cervical cancer in women, which kills over 4,200 mostly unimmunized women each year in the US. Other fatal cancers caused by the same virus affect both men and women. Immunization with two doses of HPV vaccine beginning with check-ups at age 11 is a safe and effective approach for preventing these cancers. The tragedy is that nearly 40 percent of our children go unprotected against HPV.
As with other forms of health care, social determinants matter. In the case of HPV, however, the under-immunized tend to live in affluent communities. This isn’t about lack of access; rather, the issue is lack of good information.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Australia has protected so many more of its young people that experts predict complete eradication of the virus from that nation within nine years. We can probably learn something from their experience. Somehow, Australia has avoided falling prey to the myths that have fueled vaccine hesitancy and threatened the health of children in the US.
Pediatricians like myself feel sincere empathy for the plight of parents facing such a bewildering range of advice from social media, the internet and fellow parents – mixing sound fact and pure fiction. To be clear, while there are many controversies in medicine, the HPV vaccine isn’t one of them. And neither is the measles vaccine. Specialists in infectious diseases, pediatricians, family doctors, public health experts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Academy of Pediatrics, World Health Organization (WHO) and others agree that these safe, well-tested vaccines are important to community health.
At Huntington Hospital, which is part of Northwell Health, we are launching an initiative, StopCancerFromHPV, to get the word out. Together with our community pediatricians, family physicians, internists, obstetricians and dentists, we will be educating our citizens, including young people and their parents, about the importance of lifelong protection against HPV. Suffolk County Legislator Bill (Doc) Spencer is an energetic partner in this work.
If we could tell every parent one thing, what would it be? “Not deciding” about the HPV vaccine at the age 11 visit IS a decision, and a risky one. The vaccine works best in younger people, can be given any time after the 9th birthday, and is recommended to start by the age of 11. Does any parent of a 25-year-old want to hear that their daughter has cervical cancer? Does any parent want to wake up at night thinking, “we shouldn’t have put off that shot?”
Michael B Grosso, MD, FAAP
Medical Director, Huntington Hospital
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell