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Staff Editorial

Don't wait to protect Iowa kids from cancer

An HPV vaccine and syringe at a pediatrics clinic in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/Gazette Archives)
An HPV vaccine and syringe at a pediatrics clinic in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/Gazette Archives)

If there was a vaccine that could help avert thousands of cancer cases, wouldn’t you want your child to be among those protected?

Many illnesses have been eliminated in the United States during our lifetimes. Polio, for instance, was a 1950s parents’ worst fear. Haemophilus influenza B meningitis and epiglottis were common in the 1980s, but were largely eliminated by the HIB vaccine during the 1990s, protecting more than 25,000 families each year from a sometimes life-ending illness that threatened infants and toddlers.

Today, human papillomavirus affects upward of 80 million Americans. Most will never know they are infected, and will never develop a disease due to HPV. Still, about 34,000 people a year will develop one of several types of HPV-caused cancers; an estimated 450 will be Iowans.

And, if the prevalence of HPV goes unchecked, statistics will worsen.

Gardasil 9, the latest version of the HPV vaccine manufactured by Merck, offers near 100 percent protection from cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal, mouth and throat cancers in women and men.

Yet many Iowa adolescents — more than 60 percent — aren’t being protected, and incidents of these hard-to-treat cancers are rising. In this respect, Iowa not only trails the nation in vaccination rate, but is unlikely to reach national and state goals of 80 percent vaccination rates among 13- to 15-year-olds by 2020.

Only nine Iowa counties, according to a 2019 Cancer in Iowa report by the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa, can claim more than half their adolescent population has been vaccinated.

National studies have offered explanations, including a general distrust about vaccinations — misinformation widely shared through social media and the internet — and the fact that HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, which makes vaccination discussions more difficult for some parents. The latter holds true despite genital strains of HPV being so ubiquitous that almost all sexually active people are infected at some point, regardless of their level of promiscuity.

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That’s why giving the vaccine to adolescent boys and girls is recommended. At that point, their immune system is optimal, and they likely haven’t yet been exposed to the virus.

And collective history — some sadly recent — has shown hesitance to vaccinate can have life-altering consequences.

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