Cancer vaccine for youth is effective, safe

(Photo: U.S. Air Force. Senior Airman Kristin High)

The HPV vaccine is safe and nearly 100-percent effective, health care experts say. But only about half of the target youth population – in either the civilian sector or among Military Health System beneficiaries – have received it.

“Health care providers need to help parents understand the value of the vaccine,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Heather Halvorson, deputy chief of the Defense Health Agency Immunization Health Care Branch.

“HPV can cause many different types of cancer,” she said. “People need to get the vaccine before they’re exposed to the virus. That’s why we recommend the vaccine for younger age groups.”

“It’s a great vaccine,” said Dr. Bruce McClenathan, medical director of the DHA immunization regional office at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “Widespread vaccination for HPV would have huge potential to reduce many types of cancer.”

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is very common, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 1 in 4 people in the United States has at least one of about 120 different HPV strains. The virus spreads through intimate skin-on-skin contact.

Nearly 14 million new cases of HPV infections occur every year, McClenathan said, adding that about half are among 15 to 24 year olds.

Usually, there are no signs or symptoms of an HPV infection. Most people don’t develop health problems, and the virus typically goes away on its own after a couple of years. But there’s no way to predict who will clear the virus and who won’t, McClenathan said.

If an HPV infection persists, it can eventually cause genital warts and many types of cancer. Almost all cervical cancer is HPV related; about 17,600 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the United States annually, McClenathan said.

“At least we have the Pap smear as a good test for cervical cancer,” he said. “With other HPV-related cancers, there really aren’t any good screening tests.”

About 90 percent of all anal cancers, 72 percent of all throat cancers, and 1 percent of all vaginal and vulvar cancers are also linked to HPV, he said. So are about 71 percent of penile cancers.

The target age for the HPV vaccine is 11 or 12. The vaccine is approved for girls and boys as young as 9, and women and men up to age 26. Only one HPV vaccine, Gardasil 9, is now used.

Nine to 14 year olds receive two doses of the vaccine. They get the second dose six months after the first. Those 15 and older receive three doses. The second dose is two months after the first, and the third dose is six months after the first.

For routine HPV vaccination of younger service members, the Department of Defense follows guidelines from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. “We’re catching people at the tail end of the age recommendation,” Halvorson said. “Hopefully, they were vaccinated when they were growing up, before they joined the military.”

According to a study published in the most recent issue of Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, the number of active-duty service members diagnosed with HPV declined from 2007 to 2016, with a 75 percent decrease among women in uniform. Researchers say the decline may be related to the introduction of the HPV vaccine for civilian girls and young women in 2006.

The vaccine is very safe, and most people don’t have any problems or side effects, McClenathan said. And studies have shown the vaccine caused HPV rates to decline 64 percent among teenaged girls ages 14 to 19, and 34 percent among women ages 20 to 24. “So we clearly know the vaccine is not only safe, it’s also effective in preventing HPV,” he said.

“This is a cancer-preventing vaccine,” Halvorson said. “But we have to get people vaccinated early.”

By Military Health System Communications Office