The North Dakota Department of Health is reminding adolescents and adults ages 11 to 26, during January, which is National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, about the importance of human papillomavirus vaccine for the prevention of cervical and other cancers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and can cause serious health problems. In most cases, HPV goes away by itself and before it causes any health problems, and most people who become infected with it do not even know they have it. HPV is not the same as herpes or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Anyone who is having or has ever had sex can get HPV.
"HPV is so common that almost everyone will be infected at some point in their lifetime," said Janna Pastir, Vaccines for Children Coordinator with the North Dakota Department of Health. Approximately 79 million Americans are currently infected and approximately 14 million people become newly infected each year. Not everyone goes on to develop cancer, but it is estimated that 33,300 HPV-associated cancers occur each year. Almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends a three-dose series of HPV vaccine for all adolescents 11 to 12 years of age. The vaccine is most effective when given prior to the onset of sexual activity. "As with any vaccine, it is important to be vaccinated prior to exposure to the disease it is designed to prevent," Pastir said. "We want to encourage parents and those in the recommended vaccination group to discuss this issue with their health care provider."
The HPV vaccine has been shown to be very effective and very safe, according to the North Dakota Department of Health. Most side effects are mild, consisting mainly of pain or redness in the arm, but should go away quickly. The vaccine has not been associated with any long-term side effects. Since 2006, about 57 million doses of HPV vaccine have been distributed in the U.S. No serious safety concerns have been identified in the years of HPV vaccine safety studies and monitoring.
Mary Woinarowicz, North Dakota Immunization Information System sentinel site coordinator, said it's important to get the HPV vaccine because it's intended for cancer prevention. The vaccine can prevent four types of HPV that are primary causes for types of cancer including cervical, penile, anal and oropharyngeal (cancer in the back of the throat).
A recent study has shown that HPV vaccination at the recommended ages does not lead to increased sexual activity. "We know, based on research by the CDC, that parents react in response in the way it's (the HPV vaccine) is presented to them by their physician," said Woinarowicz. Research provided by the CDC says most parents think the possible side effects of the vaccine may be a reason for why parents may be opposed to giving their children the HPV vaccine, she said.
"Forty-one percent of North Dakota girls ages 13 through 17 have been fully vaccinated against HPV," said Woinarowicz. "Although North Dakota's HPV vaccination rates are above the national average of 33.4 percent, they are well below the Healthy People 2020 goal of 80 percent and vaccination rates for male adolescents remain lower than females. Low vaccination rates are concerning, as unvaccinated North Dakotans are not protected against this serious disease, which causes cancer."
North Dakota participates in the Vaccines For Children federal entitlement program, which provides free vaccine for children 18 years of age and younger who are American Indian, Medicaid-eligible, uninsured or underinsured (have insurance but it does not cover vaccinations). Most insurance plans cover the HPV vaccine. The North Dakota Immunization Program also has an adult vaccination program that provides HPV vaccines to uninsured or underinsured adults. People are encouraged to contact their health care provider or local public health unit for more information about these vaccine programs.
"The HPV vaccine is intended for cancer prevention," Woinarowicz said. "It can potentially prevent a child from contracting cancer later on in life."
For more information about the HPV vaccine, people can contact the North Dakota Department of Health immunization program at 328-3386 or toll-free at 800-472-2180.