Dr. Isabel Scarinci.

Dr. Isabel Scarinci, Associate Director for Globalization and Cancer Disparities initiative at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center provides some very helpful information on the HPV vaccine. While your kids are finishing up their summer fun and getting ready to go back to school, don't forget about the HPV vaccine!

Q: How common are Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections?

A: Extremely common. We refer to it as the “common cold” of sexually transmitted infections. At least 75 percent of sexually active individuals have been exposed to HPV in their lifetime. But, the good news is that most people get rid of the virus. If the infection persists over time then it can turn into pre-cancer, and if not treated, into cancer. There is no treatment for the virus and, therefore, there is no point in screening for it among younger individuals because most of them will be free of this virus by the age of 30 to 35.

More good news, there is treatment for changes caused by the HPV virus before it turns into cancer.

Q: How do you get HPV?

A: You can get HPV through vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV.

Q: How can we prevent cervical cancer?

A: Nearly all cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV. The best way to truly prevent cervical cancer is to get vaccinated before exposure to the virus. That is why the vaccine is recommended to children between the ages of 11 and 12.

For some of us, who are older, and beyond vaccination age, the best way to prevent cervical cancer is through screening. Screening can detect changes before cancer is developed. You should talk to your doctor on how often you should be screened for cervical cancer.

There are only two cancers in which changes can be detected before cancer develops: cervical cancer and colorectal cancer (through colonoscopy, which is recommended for individuals 50 years of age and older).

I truly believe that we can eliminate cervical cancer as a public health problem in my lifetime. We have the best tools that have been tested through extensive research: vaccinate our children, and get screened as recommended by our primary care provider or gynecologist.

Q: How well does the vaccine protect against HPV infections?

A: The HPV vaccine protects the body from the infection. The vaccine provides enough protection so even if the person you have sex with is infected with HPV you cannot acquire it.

Q: Why is the HPV vaccine recommended for children ages 11 or 12?

We need to protect children way before they could be exposed through the virus. Also, protection from the disease is related to the immune system. At age 11 or 12, children’s response to the vaccine is stronger than at a later age. Although the vaccine is recommended for children between 11 and 12 years of age, vaccination can start as early as age nine. Children between nine and 14 only need two doses of the vaccine 6 months apart, while older children need three doses. The vaccine is recommended up to age 26 among women and age 21 among men.

Q: Why should we vaccinate boys?

A: According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, more than 31,000 people will be diagnosed with human papillomavirus (HPV)-related cancer this year, and 40 percent of them will be among men. The idea is that if we vaccinate both boys and girls we can protect them from developing these cancers.

Q: What do we need to do to increase uptake of the HPV vaccine?

A: It takes a village to raise children. Pediatricians should encourage parents to get children vaccinated and parents should ask pediatricians about how to get their children vaccinated. The conversation about the HPV vaccine needs to happen in all aspects of our social circles. By engaging everyone, we can spread knowledge about the success of the HPV vaccine and how we can protect children from developing HPV-related cancers.

That is how we ended polio. As a polio survivor, I saw this occur in my lifetime. Why shouldn’t we be able to do the same for cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers? We have the tools and the research to prove that it is safe and effective is already done. Now, it is on us, as citizens, to take this on.

Q: What do you think discourages some parents from vaccinating their kids?

A: We just finished a study in Alabama that asked parents, pediatricians, nursing staff and other stakeholders what discourages parents from vaccinating their kids. The main reasons were: safety concerns with vaccination, no communication about the vaccine from their pediatrician and lack of information or misinformation regarding the vaccine.

Every parent wants the best for their children, one way to start is to seek information through reliable resources like our UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, and other reputable sources.