Published on May 26, 2022

HPV vaccination protects children against cancer later in life

At Essentia Health — like other health systems across the country — oncologists are reporting increasing numbers of cancers, including head and neck cancers in adults. While this is alarming, of course, there’s a sliver of encouragement:

Many of these cancers are preventable through vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV).

Let’s explain.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact, it can cause cervical and other cancers, which may take years to develop after an infection. Consider this story of a Phoenix man in his 50s who battled throat cancer caused by a “latent HPV infection” that could have existed in his body for decades.

That is why children are encouraged to receive the HPV vaccine starting at age 9. Why so young? The vaccine is most effective when administered before a person becomes sexually active. Also, preteens produce more antibodies after HPV vaccination than do older adolescents. The vaccine works better with their immune systems and can prevent almost all infection by the types of HPV it protects against.

HPV is so common that almost everyone will be infected at some point in their lives if they don’t get vaccinated. Indeed, there are currently more than 42 million Americans infected with HPV types that cause disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus precipitates about 36,000 cases of cancer in men and women per year; annually, more than 7,000 people die from cancers caused by HPV.

Digging deeper into the CDC data, more than nine of every 10 cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, and ALMOST ALL cervical cancer can be prevented by vaccination. However, it’s not just females who are affected by HPV. More than four of every 10 cases of cancer caused by HPV occur among men.

Here’s the silver lining — HPV vaccination can prevent over 90% of those cancers caused by HPV. There’s a misconception that it’s only for people who are sexually active, or that it’s merely to guard against HPV. But vaccination can prevent the pain and suffering that accompanies cancer. By making sure kids get the vaccine today, we can keep them safe later in life.

“HPV infections have the potential to become a very serious problem,” said Dr. Dhilhan Marasinghe, a pediatrician at Essentia Health. “Luckily, the HPV vaccine is a safe, well-studied and reliable method of preventing HPV cancer. I recommend this vaccine to all of my patients over 9 years old. If you have any concerns about the vaccine, please contact your primary care provider.” 

Who should be vaccinated, then? Everyone through age 26 if not vaccinated already. Essentia recommends doing so for children beginning at 9 years old. For children younger than 15, two doses are needed, 6-12 months apart. If the youngster starts the series on or after their 15th birthday, they will need three doses, given over six months.