By Gale R. Burstein, M.D.
Recently, there has been chatter about human papillomavirus (HPV) and the HPV vaccine. As a mother, a pediatrician and the Erie County health commissioner, I have serious concerns about HPV infection and the unnecessary fear prompted by HPV vaccine misinformation.
HPV infection is widespread. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20 million people in the United States are infected with genital HPV. Half of these infections are among adolescents and young adults, ages 15 through 24. HPV is so common that most sexually active adults, including married couples, become infected at some point in their lives. This means that almost everyone is at risk of the terrible potential outcomes of HPV. These infections are expensive. The CDC estimates HPV costs Americans more than $16 billion a year.
Although most HPV infections do not cause symptoms and clear on their own, certain HPV strains can cause cervical cancer as well as cancers of the anus, penis, vulva, vagina and throat. In 2012, more throat cancers were caused by HPV than by tobacco. Every year in the United States, about 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 4,000 women die from this disease. Other HPV types can cause genital warts, which more than 3 million Americans suffer from at any given time. In some instances, HPV can lead to a congenital infection in the newborn during labor and deliver and lead to respiratory tract warts.
Thankfully, there is an answer. Two HPV vaccines are licensed by the Food and Drug Administration. Studies of thousands of people in many countries showed no serious safety concerns and found that both HPV vaccines were safe. Common, mild adverse events include pain where the shot was given, fever, dizziness and nausea.
Ideally, patients should be vaccinated before onset of sexual activity. Parents may feel uncomfortable with a vaccine to protect against sexually transmitted infections in 11- and 12-year-olds. But research shows that HPV vaccine does not lead to sex at an earlier age.
Unfortunately, some self-proclaimed experts have been spreading misinformation about this cancer-preventing vaccine. Even though the HPV vaccine has been proven to be safe and effective, these individuals have been trying to convince parents that vaccination presents a grave threat to their children’s health. This propagation of false information scares me. We have power to protect our children against a dangerous virus. People who are promoting false information to frighten us are trying to strip us of that power. We must be strong advocates for our children’s health through the power of truth and the facts of science. Know the scientific facts, not the science fiction.
Gale R. Burstein, M.D., is commissioner of the Erie County Department of Health.