Dr. Ronald A. DePinho is on a mission.
DePinho, who’s been a cancer researcher for decades and currently serves as the president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, wants to reframe the national conversation about the HPV vaccine to drive home a fundamental point.
“It’s important to appreciate that this is a cancer vaccine. A cancer vaccine!” DePinho said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “It’s a dream come true that we’ve converted knowledge into something that can actually save lives and avoid getting cancer in the first place. It’s really what we have been hoping for, and now we have it.”
Since the introduction of the HPV vaccine in 2006, the rate of human papillomavirus in teenage girls has plummeted. And the research in this field continues to advance. On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration approved an updated version of the Gardasil vaccine that protects against nine strains of the cancer-causing virus — more than twice as many as the 2006 version, which covered just four strains.
According to DePinho, that’s a really significant advance for cancer care. He doesn’t want it to get lost in the ongoing controversy about HPV vaccination, a round of shots that some parents still worry is unsafe or inappropriate for their kids.
There’s a persistent myth, for instance, that giving teen girls the shots will spur them to become more “promiscuous” because they know they’ll be protected from a sexually transmitted infection. Large scientific studies have debunked the notion that there’s any link between the HPV vaccine and sexual activity, but inoculation rates still lag behind in some of the Southern states that are wary to provide teens with preventative tools to protect their sexual health.
In general, HPV vaccination rates in the U.S. are still much too low, hovering around 30 percent. Public health professionals are aiming to increase those rates dramatically, to at least 80 percent — closer to the percentage of people who get vaccinated against the virus in other developed countries.
To accomplish that, the health professionals who have dedicated their lives to treating HPV-related cancers want to move the conversation away from sexuality altogether. Instead of framing Gardasil as vaccine that protects against an STD — which might give some Americans the impression that they don’t need to worry about it — they want to present it as a vaccine that protects against cancer.
“It doesn’t seem like it makes sense to see it in terms of a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease necessarily,” Dr. Erich Sturgis, an expert in head and throat cancer who works as the program director for the MD Anderson Oropharynx Program, said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “Most of us will have an HPV infection at some point in our lifetime and we’ll never know it.”
Nearly all sexually active Americans get HPV at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 80 percent of people are infected at some point, and most never realize it because the infection resolves itself on its own. But certain strains of the virus go on to cause cervical, vulvar, anal, penile, and oropharyngeal cancers.
Without the HPV vaccine, men in particular are put at risk of developing neck and throat cancers. Unlike cervical cancers, which can be detected with regular Pap smears, there’s no way to screen men.
Sturgis treats mostly middle aged male patients, and he estimated that about 60 percent of the cancers he deals with are caused by HPV. He said it’s important to increase the rates of vaccination among both girls and boys because it will be another 30 to 40 years before today’s kids hit the point when these type of throat cancers may start displaying themselves.
“To let your kids potentially suffer later in life is just a tragedy. That’s really the message here,” he said.
Both cancer doctors are optimistic that once more parents are educated about what’s at stake, they’ll start vaccinating their kids at higher rates. There’s a big information gap — one recent study found that 70 percent of U.S. adults didn’t realize the HPV vaccine has any connection to cancer whatsoever — that they believe can be corrected with more investment from primary care doctors who are on the front lines of recommending the shots.
“It’s really about empowering parents and health care professionals, and making them recognize that this is a childcare responsibility and a priority for all of us,” DePinho said. “It begins with interviews like this and just having the media getting this information out there.”
“Doctors are probably not as good at messaging to the public as we could be. We need some help,” Sturgis agreed.