Health Watch/Western U.P. Health Department/Barb Auten, R.N., B.S.N.

As a parent, you try to protect your kids from all kinds of harm – from unsafe drivers, playground bullies, bike falls and broken hearts. If you could protect them from cancer, wouldn’t you? Well, the great news is that you can, with a vaccine against HPV or Human Papilloma Virus.

What many people do not know is that HPV is the primary cause of cervical cancer in women, causing more than 12,000 cases and 4,000 deaths per year in the United States.

It also causes about 7,000 head and neck, anal and penile cancers in men each year. And in spite of the fact that the vaccine has been shown to be more than 90 percent effective in preventing some types of cancer, only a small number of us have been vaccinated. In fact, only 5 percent of age-eligible individuals in the western Upper Peninsula have received even one dose of the vaccine.

Why are so few of us vaccinated? Well, as it turns out, HPV is a sexually transmitted infection and that sometimes makes the discussion more difficult. But it is important to know the facts about this infection.

HPV is so common that most sexually active people will be infected at some point in their lives. Currently more than 20 million men and women in the United States are infected with HPV, and as many as half of these infections are among adolescents and young adults, ages 15 through 24 years.

Most people infected with HPV will never have symptoms and never even realize that they have been infected.

Fortunately, in most of us, the infection will resolve on its own. But in some people, the body does not fight off HPV, leading to health problems like cancer or genital warts.

The Gardisil HPV vaccine is given as a series of three shots over a 6-month period of time. It is safe, effective, and according to current studies, long-lasting and can be given up to age 26 for both males and females. The Gardasil vaccine is approved for use in males and females 11-26 years of age (there is another HPV vaccine called Cervarix that is approved only for females).

Why vaccinate pre-teen children against a sexually transmitted virus, long before they are at risk of exposure? There are really two main reasons to target this age group for vaccination: 1) The vaccine is most effective when it is given well before any possible exposure to the virus, and 2) children typically are seen for routine check-ups at 11-12 years of age and receive booster doses of other vaccines at that time, so it is an ideal opportunity to get vaccinations done. Older teens are much less likely to see the doctor every year for check-ups, so there are fewer opportunities to get them vaccinated.

To remove any financial barriers associated with the HPV vaccine, the health department will assist families in determining if their private insurance covers the vaccine, identify eligibility for the Vaccines for Children (VFC) Program for clients under age 19, or enroll clients in patient assistance programs offered by vaccine manufacturers.

Please contact the health department or your health care provider with any questions about the HPV vaccine or to schedule an appointment for vaccination, and remember, this is an opportunity to help keep your child healthy for a lifetime. Add HPV vaccine to the list of everything else you do as a parent to protect your child.

Editor’s note: Barb Auten is Director of Public Health and Education at the Western U.P. Health Department.