Australia is about to eradicate cervical cancer, US is nowhere close. What’ll it take?

Researchers announced last month that thanks to a compulsory vaccine program, Australia is on track to eradicate cervical cancer. This is due to almost universal vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus which is responsible for 90 percent of cervical cancers. The vaccine itself is a medical breakthrough and has only been available for use since 2006. In just 12 short years, cervical cancer is becoming a rarity in Australia and will eventually be eliminated, saving thousands of Australians’ lives.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year HPV causes cancer in 33,700 men and women in the U.S. alone. Cervical cancer is not the only cancer caused by HPV; 70 percent of oropharynx cancers, for example, which were previously attributed only to alcohol and tobacco use, are caused by HPV.

In Australia in 2016, 78.6 percent of females and 72.9 percent of males had completed the HPV vaccine series. By comparison, the CDC reports only 49 percent of U.S. adolescents completed the series in 2017. So why is Australia so much closer to eradicating cervical cancer than the United States?

Anti-vaxxers and conservative attitudes on sex

One reason is the anti-vaccine movement, pushed into the mainstream by the former physician and con man Andrew Wakefield, who falsified research results linking autism to vaccines and planned to make millions of dollars selling a scam diagnostic test, and promoted by the likes of Jenny McCarthy, the celebrity anti-vaxxer who wrongly claimed vaccines caused her son to develop autism. McCarthy was denounced by medical scientists, but that didn’t keep her from spreading her erroneous views to millions of Americans thanks to regular television appearances on “Oprah” and “The View.”

Conservative attitudes about sex, especially as it relates to young people, have also kept many American parents from having their children vaccinated against HPV.  But we need to talk about healthy sexual behaviors, as current movements like #MeToo have shown us. We need to discuss with our children ways they can remain healthy when choosing to participate in sexual activity.

This includes removing the stigma surrounding sex that causes unintended pregnancies and sexually-transmitted infections to spread because adolescents and young adults are too embarrassed to seek out contraception. Religious leaders have suggested the HPV vaccine encourages promiscuity, a claim that has been exhaustively disproven in medical research.Suggesting that protecting oneself against cancer is something to be ashamed of is an irresponsible and nefarious assertion.

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As a nurse, I am still amazed that we have the ability to prevent cancer from occurring and save tens of thousands of people’s lives, just through a vaccine. Yet so many of my patients still wrongly believe that vaccines are dangerous, despite my assurances. Anti-vaccine groups have gone so far as to spread false claims regarding the safety of the vaccine. The World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC have all determined the HPV vaccine is safe. And the only common side effects that have been proven are ones that can occur with any vaccine, like dizziness and a reaction at the injection site.

It strikes me that my patients accept my recommendations with almost every other health decision they have to make. Why do my patients trust me when I prescribe antibiotics or anti-hypertensives, but not when I recommend the HPV vaccine? Why is Jenny McCarthy’s medical opinion valued over mine?

HPV vaccine should be required for school

For the Unites States to eradicate cervical cancer as Australia is on pace to do, we must include the HPV vaccine in the regular childhood vaccine schedule, and it should be required for enrollment in school.

The HPV vaccine is recommended in childhood for two reasons.  First, the vaccine works best at the beginning of adolescence when one’s body can make stronger antibodies that are required to prevent infection. Second, a child must be vaccinated before he or she has been exposed to the virus itself.

Making the choice to protect your children against cancer is the same as making them wear a seat belt or a helmet. You hope they will never need it, you hope they won’t be exposed to the virus, but if they are, they will be covered. No one should die because of myths and misconceptions. We have the power to stop this virus in its tracks and protect generations of Americans from an early death. Don’t American children deserve to have lives as long and healthy as those in Australia?


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