The Vaccine That Can Keep Your Child From Getting Cancer

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If you could vaccinate your kids against cancer, would you? Although the human papillomavirus (HPV) has been shown to cause cancer, many parents don’t vaccinate their children against HPV, a common infection spread by skin-to-skin contact. The reasons vary: vaccine safety; worries their child will become sexually active; unawareness of HPV’s link to cancer.

UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital pediatrician Douglas Fleck, MD, explains the link between HPV and cancer and why getting the vaccine is so important for children.


Podcast Transcript

Macie Jepson

Hi, I'm Macie Jepson.

Pete Kenworthy

And I'm Pete Kenworthy. And this is Healthy@UH. And today we're breaking down the HPV vaccine.

Macie Jepson

Oh yeah. The HPV vaccine. When we started looking into this actually, Pete, and, I mean, you're a parent of three kids, you didn't know a lot about it.

Pete Kenworthy

That's very true. Yeah. I didn't know much about the vaccine at all. I came to find out in talking to my wife that my 16-year-old daughter's already had it. But it turns out ... I didn't know that boys need it … it turns out my 11-year-old twin boys also need this vaccine. So, I guess I'm really just confused by the whole thing.

Macie Jepson

A lot of the people are. But I think at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself if you could offer your child something that would prevent some forms of cancer, wouldn't you do that?

Pete Kenworthy

Right.

Macie Jepson

Well, the answer is a lot of parents aren't.

Pete Kenworthy

Yeah. They aren't doing it. So let's talk to the expert. We are not experts, but University Hospitals pediatrician Dr. Douglas Fleck is joining us. Doctor, thanks for joining us.

Dr. Fleck

Oh, no problem. Happy to be here.

Pete Kenworthy

So, when it comes to your patients, what is the biggest question surrounding the HPV vaccine?

Dr. Fleck

The biggest question they have about it is why. So typically for a lot of the Rainbow practices we give it typically at around 11 years old. That's typically what we recommend. And there's a couple of other vaccines we typically do it a lot, and we do the tetanus and we do the meningitis. And a lot of kids are familiar with that because it is one of the, those two are required for seventh grade. And typically with those other two vaccines, we often will recommend that they get to HPV as well. And parents are just why are kids getting HPV at 11 years old? And the reason for that is a little different. So, people are used to, with vaccines, they think, oh, when I get a vaccine I'm preventing an illness that I'm going to get now. And HPV is a little different in that what we know about the HPV vaccine is, is that if you get the vaccine at an earlier age, around 11, 12 around that age, you have a much better immune response. So that when you get protected against a virus … HPV is a virus that we know … well, yes it is sexually transmitted, but it's also a particular virus that, once you get it, you are more likely to get cancer, certain kinds of cancer. Cancers like throat cancer in addition to cancers down below. And so, we think of the HPV vaccine more like a cancer prevention vaccine. So, if you are more likely to get it earlier, get a better immune response and are able to prevent getting cancer at an earlier age and do better with that, they're more likely to do much better earlier than later. That, that's one reason that we bring it up to parents.

Macie Jepson

Well, so in the beginning, parents feared that this was actually a green light to, to have sex.

Dr. Fleck

Right.

Macie Jepson

But I guess my question always was, do you even have to have a conversation with our…

Dr. Fleck

No. And I'll be honest, most of the kids that we have the conversation about, we don't even bring up the word sex. We just say there's three vaccines we typically, you know, are doing today: the tetanus and meningitis and the HPV, and the HPV typically as a cancer prevention vaccine. And the first question, you know, so a lot of parents are familiar with HPV being associated with cervical cancer, but they don't understand why the boys need to get it in addition to the girls.

Pete Kenworthy

That was my next question.

Dr. Fleck

Yeah. Hey, so we're on the same page here. So, we're on the wave length. And the reason for that is HPV has actually been found to be more linked lately … yes, it is linked with cervical cancer … but it's also linked with oropharyngeal cancers. So that's cancers of the back of the throat, the tongue. And they're actually seeing that with the oropharyngeal cancers, they're actually seeing the incidence that going up, and it's actually going up even higher than cervical cancer. And the incidence of oropharyngeal cancer is actually higher in men than women. So, whatever we can do to actually prevent that is huge. So, it's actually equally, if not more important, in boys than girls.

Macie Jepson

So, it's not just about intercourse.

Dr. Fleck

No, this is, this is, this is flat out about cancer prevention. So, so, you know, everybody's so used to, oh, I want to, you know, prevent … yes, and these are, there are a lot of diseases out there that we want to prevent … and yes, there's a lot of vaccines out there, but you know, we've had, we've made big strides in preventing a lot of these illnesses. So, the tough thing to, to wrap your mind about is well, yes, you may not get that cancer now. If you get that vaccine now, what's been shown over and over in a lot of these particular studies is that the kids who get the vaccine at 11 and 12 have a much better immune response, A), and B) the cancer incidence goes way down, and precancerous lesions go way down when they're vaccinated at an earlier age.

Pete Kenworthy

So that seems like a no-brainer. So, I guess what's left here is, is the safety of the vaccine itself, right? So, we look at these other vaccines that our kids have been getting or that we got when we were younger. And these have been around for decades, right? You look at this vaccine, it's been around since 2006. So, are there things we don't know, are there concerns that we have?

Dr. Fleck

There's tons of studies out on the HPV vaccine, and roughly that came out around the same time as Menactra, which is, you know, the same one that we use for, for adolescents and is required for seventh-graders. There's, there's, there's tons of data to show there is really, as far as, it is safe. There are really no adverse effects. You know, several studies from 2011 to 2015 looked at more than 4 million women and girls who were vaccinated in showed no relationship between HPV vaccine and, and a lot of different things that people, you know, you may, you know, get scared a little bit on different places like social media and whatnot to hear about auto-immune disorders, blood clots. There's no link with any of that. It is a very safe vaccine. And like you mentioned about your, my own kids have been vaccinated with the Gardasil vaccine. So, I feel you know, it, it's the same thing I do with a lot of things in my own particular practice. I tell people, you know, if I don't feel comfortable with my own kids, I'm not going to recommend the same thing for your kids. So, I do feel very comfortable about it.

Macie Jepson

All right now I'm feeling like the big loser mother. And I'll tell you why. Because when my kids, when this first came out, my kids were young, and it wasn't a fear that they were going to have sex.

Dr. Fleck

Sure.

Macie Jepson

But it was a new vaccine and I wanted to give as much time for us to figure out what we could about ... So, they weren't 11 or 12 when they had their first --

So now what? Are they still protected?

Dr. Fleck

No, they're still protected. I mean, listen, any protection is better than no protection, so, so it's better to get, you know, and actually, if you look at the Gardasil, what they recommend, they're actually recommending that they get vaccinated with this. They can be vaccinated as early as age 9. So, if some parents want to do that earlier, you can. We typically do at age 11 and at, at in most of the Rainbow UH practices. But, you know, if you, if you haven't done it yet, you can talk to your provider, pediatrician about it, and say, hey, you know, we haven't done it yet. Can, can we, can we talk about this? Kids this young have had such a good immune response that typically if you're vaccinated before 15 years old, you'll get a two-dose regimen. So, it can be done as soon as one month apart. Sometimes providers will say, hey, we'll do one dose this year and maybe we'll do a second dose next year. If they get it after 15, then they may need a three-dose regimen. So, it just may be that you get an extra dose. But you'll still get protected.

Macie Jepson

Good to know.

Pete Kenworthy

Lots of great information, Dr. Fleck, we appreciate you joining us today.

Dr. Fleck

Oh, no problem. Happy to be here.

Pete Kenworthy

So, takeaways today are that it's a safe vaccine. It's an effective vaccine, and according to you, Dr. Fleck, all kids should get the vaccine.

Dr. Fleck

Absolutely. 100 percent.

Macie Jepson

All right. Do you want to know more? Go to UHhospitals.org/blog.

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