All of the shots offered by pediatricians are supposed to vaccinate against many kinds of diseases in the future, from rubella to meningitis B, and the HPV vaccine is just one of many in such a long list, offered to people during their formative teenage years. Each vaccination may blur into one mass of jabs in the arm, but they are all designed to prevent people from contracting debilitating diseases.
Despite the clear long-term health benefits of many vaccines, there is a crucial vaccination that has recently been being ignored that could spell trouble for those who refuse it down the road. The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is given to children at the age of 13 and can prevent various genital cancers as well as throat cancer in both women and men.
“Globally there are around 528,000 new cases of cervical cancer and 266,000 deaths linked to human papilloma virus a year,” says Heidi Larson, who is a part of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “The HPV vaccine has the potential to eradicate the vast majority of these.” Despite the obvious benefits, recipients of the shot have decreased dramatically in Japan, Denmark, and Ireland.
“Whenever a new vaccine is introduced, there is always a group of people who say it is unsafe,” says Margaret Stanley, a professor at Cambridge University. “But the HPV vaccine seems to raise extraordinary levels of hostility.” This seems to be especially true in Japan, where parents are posting videos of their children developing motor problems and experiencing seizures after receiving the vaccine. There is no concrete correlation between the two, but the possibility seems to be enough to draw parents away from allowing their children to get the vaccine.
“In addition, some parents feel they might be encouraging promiscuity by allowing their daughters to be vaccinated against a virus that spreads through sexual contact,” says Stanley. “Add to this the use of social media and you have quite an explosive mixture.” Indeed, it is possible that the panic surrounding HPV could have been reduced if social media had not been a part of the equation.
In order to combat the situation, health officials recently gathered in Dublin to discuss how they could better market the vaccine so that parents would be more receptive to allowing their child to receive it. One option that was discussed was administering the vaccine at the age of nine instead of 13, a solution that is currently being used in Austria.
“The apparent link with alleged promiscuity is not perceived to be so strong at this age and the timing also comes when children tend to be less emotional,” says Stanley. “Giving the vaccine a few years earlier than at present could be very effective.” There may also be added biological benefits in reducing the age of the recipient, such as the elimination of seizures or motor problems.
Additional benefits of the distribution of the vaccine are already being seen in the health community – recently, the number of people present with HPV infections and cervical lesions has reduced greatly. According to Stanley, this drop should be represented in about 20 years, where the number of deaths related to HPV cervical cancer are also greatly reduced. “Given that cervical cancer often kills women who are relatively young,” she says, “the benefits of this vaccine are particularly sharp.”
Hopefully the vaccine becomes better marketed to raise the levels of vaccination for HPV and prevent genital or throat cancer in girls and women.
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