Florida Department of Health officials are launching an important campaign this month to promote vaccinations aimed at preventing the spread of human papillomavirus, or HPV. The virus is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States and can lead to cancer and other health problems.
Administered on schedule, the HPV vaccine can prevent most of the cancers caused by HPV. Allowing children to get the vaccine does not give them a license to have sex. It allows them to live without fear of developing some cancers.
The HPV vaccine was released in the United States in 2006 and touted as a way to save people from developing life-threatening diseases, including cervical, vaginal, anal and throat cancers. It also protects against genital warts. Nearly a decade later, the vaccine's efficacy or safety has never been in question. But it remains a tough sell, primarily because its target audience is preteens. Nationally, only about 40 percent of adolescent girls and 22 percent of adolescent boys have gotten the shots. In Florida, the numbers are much lower, with only 29 percent of girls and 18 percent of boys completing the series.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that girls and boys receive the three-dose vaccine at ages 11 or 12, an attempt to catch children before they become sexually active and while their bodies are most receptive to the drug. Public health officials say much of the resistance to the HPV vaccine is rooted in the moral objections of parents who may see the shots as giving their children permission to have sex.
Some pediatricians also are not discussing the vaccine with parents. There is no excuse for failing to have such important conversations. Doctors should not defer to parents' sensibilities at the expense of children's health.
Florida Health Department officials are smart to initiate a broad public education campaign for the HPV vaccine. The CDC says the virus is so common that most sexually active adults will have it at some point in their lifetime. It is typically spread through anal, oral or vaginal sex and, more rarely, through childbirth.
Nationwide, about 14 million new HPV infections occur each year. About 17,600 women and 9,300 men are affected by cancer caused by HPV each year. Separately, 180,000 women and 160,000 men develop genital warts from HPV annually. These numbers could easily decline if parents would vaccinate their children.
Doctors should make the HPV vaccine a routine part of their counsel on children's vaccination schedules. It is just as important to protect children from HPV as it is to stop chickenpox and polio. There should be no moral reason to withhold information about what is in the best interest of public health.
The public's resistance to the HPV vaccine and the rate at which the virus continues to spread is a reminder of the importance of all vaccines. Respected medical professionals and scientific research have repeatedly shown no causal link between childhood vaccinations and disorders such as autism. Yet a disturbing number of parents ignore years of scientific research and choose not to vaccinate their children.
Last year's multistate measles outbreak, traced to a traveler at a California amusement park, shows the consequences of such actions. In every circumstance, parents should put the well-being of their children above unfounded fears and moral hesitation. Vaccines work.