The pandemic created challenges for families scheduling routine childhood vaccinations. “August is when many kids go back to school, as well as National Immunization Awareness Month. Now's the time to get caught up on HPV [human papillomavirus] vaccinations,” says Heather Brandt, PhD, director of the HPV Cancer Prevention Program at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
HPV can cause six types of cancer, including oral, cervical, vaginal, anal and penile cancer. It results in more than 36,000 cases of cancer each year in the United States. Yet, vaccination prevents 90% of HPV cancers when given starting at age 9.
“As parents make back-to-school doctors’ appointments, we want to make sure they prioritize HPV vaccination,” Brandt says. “HPV vaccination is safe and provides long-lasting protection.”
Brandt helped launch "Path to a Bright Future," a campaign that encourages on-time HPV vaccination for 9–12-year-olds and supports equitable administration of HPV vaccination for all. She works alongside other advocates such as Jason Mendelsohn, an HPV oropharyngeal cancer survivor and a Head and Neck Cancer Alliance executive board member.
“As a father of three and a HPV cancer survivor, I want to help other parents feel comfortable about vaccinating their children against HPV as early as age 9 to protect against HPV cancers,” Mendelsohn says. “If there was a vaccine that could protect your daughters from breast cancer or your sons from prostate cancer, you'd give it. We have a vaccine that will protect your children for a lifetime from HPV cancers.”
At age 44, Mendelsohn was diagnosed with HPV tonsil cancer. A bump on his neck was the only symptom.
“No one is ever prepared for cancer,” he recalls. I had a radical tonsillectomy, neck dissection, 7 weeks of chemo, radiation and a feeding tube. But this is a preventable cancer, and there is a vaccine that can protect millions of people from living the reality I had to endure. As parents, we should be making sure every eligible child is vaccinated against HPV.”
A non-St. Jude study published in the International Journal of Gynecological Cancer in August 2022 shows rates of advanced cervical cancer rose by 1.5% each year 2001-2018. “We know HPV vaccination can prevent almost all cervical cancers,” Brandt says. “Cervical cancer screening is important and should be a priority. We all must work to prevent cervical and the five other types of cancers linked to HPV by getting vaccinated against HPV.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination for everyone through age 26. HPV vaccination is given as a series of either two or three doses, depending on age at initial vaccination.
“Two doses of HPV vaccine are recommended for most persons starting the series before their 15th birthday,” Brandt says. “Three doses are recommended for those who start the series at ages 15 through 26 and for immunocompromised persons. Keep in mind that HPV vaccination prevents new HPV infections but does not treat existing HPV infections or diseases. HPV vaccination works best when given before any exposure to HPV.”
“Vaccination hesitancy threatens to reverse progress made over the years in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases,” Brandt says. “In fact, the World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy as one of the world’s top 10 global health threats in 2019.”
There are many myths about HPV vaccines that are untrue and undermine confidence in vaccination. Brandt provides some clarity:
“Adulthood may seem like a long way off for a 9-year-old,” Brandt says. “But a moment of protection today with HPV vaccination will provide a lifetime of protection against HPV cancers as an adult. Make sure HPV vaccination is on your back-to-school list.”