The Human papillomavirus, or HPV, and its link to certain cancers has been in the headlines recently, reigniting the debate whether it is appropriate to vaccinate children against the virus.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Pediatrics now recommend that both girls and boys be vaccinated against HPV. Robert I. Haddad, MD, disease center leader of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s head and neck oncology program, says the recommendations are well founded. “We are clearly seeing an epidemic of HPV-related head and neck cancer - the numbers are rising dramatically. HPV is a cause of many cancers, so it is really important to support endeavors to vaccinate.”
HPV has more than 100 strains, including HPV-16 and 18, which are aggressive, high-risk, sexually transmitted, and have been linked to certain types of cervical or head and neck cancers.
According to Haddad, HPV infection is a major cause of oropharyngeal cancer, which effects the base of the tongue, the tonsils, and the walls of the pharynx. This year, about 14,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer. Most of them will be young , between 40 and 50 years old, and three out of four will be male.
“A decade ago, patients with head and neck cancer were smokers or heavy drinkers. Now, only 20 percent are smokers or drinkers, and the other 80 percent have an oropharynx cancer caused by an HPV infection,” says Haddad.
Because HPV is predominately transmitted through sexual contact, the CDC recommends vaccinating girls and boys at ages 11 or 12. The vaccine is given in three doses several months apart.
"I advise my patients with HPV-related cancers to vaccinate their children against HPV - both boys and girls,” says Haddad. “There is a misconception that only girls should be vaccinated and that is the wrong approach. We strongly believe that both boys and girls should be vaccinated against HPV."
In June 2006, The US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the vaccine, Gardasil (Merck), for girls ages 9 to 26. The vaccine protects against four strains of HPV, including HPV-6 and -11, as well as the high risk strains HPV-16 and 18, which are a known cause of cervical, oropharyngeal, anal, and vaginal cancers. The CDC followed suit recommending the three dose vaccine become a routine immunization for girls. Gardasil was licensed for use in boys in October 2009. The CDC voted to approve it for boys in 2011.