April 4, 2012

POLICY: Should the HPV Vaccine Be Required?

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The debate over the HPV vaccine is about to get a lot more heated. The Human Papillomavirus, or HPV as it is fondly called, is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States.

Statistics from the CDC state that at least 50 percent of sexually active people will have genital HPV at some point in their lives. Every year, almost 20 million Americans are infected with HPV. Even more alarming is the fact that almost 75 percent of those infected are young adults between the ages of 15 and 24.

While these statistics are alarming, fears associated with this data were alleviated with the introduction of the HPV vaccine in 2006. This vaccine was aimed at protecting girls and young women from the consequences of HPV, which can result in various forms of cancer in the body. Though the virus can afflict both males and females, the vaccine was only recommended for women, given the association of HPV with cervical cancer: Almost 12,000 cases of cervical cancer per year are attributed to HPV infections.

These cases of cancer are largely considered preventable with vaccination, but vaccination rates in the United States have so far been largely disappointing. Much of this is attributed to the fact that HPV and its associated diseases are the result of sexual activity: a controversial topic, to say the least.

The debate over the HPV vaccine, however, is about to get a lot more heated now that the Center for Disease control and the Advisory Committee on Immunization has become involved. After years of encouraging girls and young women to get vaccinated for HPV, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the CDC has recently advocated the vaccination of boys and young men from 13 to 21 years for HPV as well.

The proposal suggests such action as a tool to combat not only the transmission of the virus, but the rising incidence of HPV-related cancers in men as well as women. In fact, there are more than 40 types of HPV that can affect the genital, mouth and throat areas of both males and females. While almost 90 percent of HPV infections are naturally cleared from the body and do not result in symptoms, those infections that linger can result in genital warts and certain genital cancers, including cervical cancer, anal cancer and others.

This recommendation sheds light on a much-neglected group of people afflicted with HPV-related cancers. Though cervical cancer still makes up a large portion of the HPV-related cancers, its rates have declined over the past years, while a growing number of other HPV-related cancers are on the rise. Approximately 2,700 woman and 1,500 men are afflicted with HPV-related anal cancer. The controversy arises because of the implication that male HPV cancers are the result of homosexual intercourse.

The vaccination of males brings up the uncomfortable realities that many parents must face when choosing to give their child the HPV vaccine. It forces adults to consider their children’s future sexual activity. And while the stigma of sexually transmitted diseases remains, vaccination is a critical step in keeping our population healthy.

In effect, the HPV vaccine is one of the only vaccines against cancer. More than that, vaccination helps reduce rates of transmission with sexual activity. While the cost effectiveness of a universal vaccine is questionable, there is no doubt that it could save numerous lives. Unlike many other diseases we know of today, the spread of HPV is very preventable, and it would be a shame not to do something about it.

But does the government have the right to mandate the vaccine, as it currently does for immigrants seeking to gain citizenship? And is there any truth to the claim that the government is covering up the side effects of the vaccine? Sound off in the comments section.

Iha Kaul is a student in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at [email protected] The Missing Link: Policy appears on appears on Thursdays.

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Original Author: Iha Kaul