Cancer prevention has been a growing concern among our tribes, with cancer being the second leading cause of death among Alaska Natives. The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than 150 related viruses, several of which are cancer-causing. This is important to be aware of considering 80% of people will get an HPV infection in their lifetime. Thankfully, the HPV vaccine is a safe and effective means of preventing these cancer-causing viruses.
“In countries where the vaccine has been routine, there has been a dramatic drop in the HPV disease,” says Dr. Stephen Gerrish, MD, Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center, “It is expected that cancers caused by HPV will be largely eliminated in future generations once the vaccine becomes routine.”
Who should get the HPV vaccine?
The State of Alaska, which pays for the vaccine, offers it to children starting at 9 years of age. The good news is that if you get the vaccine before 15 years of age, you only need two doses. After that, it takes three doses. It can be given to men up to 21 years old, and women 26 years old. At that age, it offers some benefit, but only from those HPV viruses that you have not been exposed to (there are several HPV types that cause disease).
The HPV virus is mostly caught through sexual activity and works best if given before relationships begin because once you have an HPV virus, the vaccine provides no protection from that particular HPV virus type.
Why get the vaccine?
The HPV vaccine provides protection against most of the cancers caused by HPV infection. HPV infections can cause cervical cancer, cancer of the lower bowels, and throat/neck cancers. HPV cancer usually does not have symptoms until it is quite advanced, very serious and hard to treat. Other strains of the HPV infection are known to cause warts.
However, it’s important to note that HPV can be passed even when an infected person shows no signs or symptoms. People can develop symptoms years after being infected, making it hard to know when you first became infected.
What does this mean?
“Quite simply, it means that if we provide this vaccine to our children and young adults in a timely manner, we can reduce their chances of ever getting or dying from the cancers caused by the HPV virus,” says Dr.Gerrish.