Vaccines have certainly received a great deal of news coverage recently and for good reason. Generally speaking, vaccines help prevent illnesses.

January was Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and it brought attention to another vaccine – the HPV vaccine. This vaccine is effective in preventing cervical cancer as well as throat cancer, vaginal cancer, anal cancer, and others.

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be approximately 14,000 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in the U.S. this year. More than 4,000 women are expected to die from cervical cancer.

While it used to be the most common cause of cancer death in U.S. women, an emphasis on screening has reduced the death rate.

Most cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus virus (HPV), which is a group of more than 150 related viruses. A few types of HPV are considered high risk because they can cause cancer. In fact, HPV is the leading risk factor for cervical cancer. Most individuals will be exposed to HPV during their lifetime.

As stated earlier, the HPV vaccine is effective in preventing cervical cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates the vaccine can prevent more than 90% of HPV-related cancers. A study published online in The Lancet (Nov. 3, 2021) showed the success of England’s national HPV vaccine program in that young women who received the vaccine were 87% less likely to have cervical cancer than others who were not vaccinated.

The HPV vaccine is currently recommended for all children ages 11-12, and it can be given as early as age 9. It’s also recommended for everyone through age 45, if not vaccinated.

Unfortunately, there are too many young people who are not receiving the vaccine. The 2020 CDC National Immunization Survey reported that about 58.6% of teens are up to date on the HPV vaccine and 75.1% had received at least one dose.

While the HPV vaccine is very effective in preventing cervical and other cancers, we also know that the vaccine prevents only new infections; it does not treat existing infections. That is why it is so important for young people to be vaccinated at the recommended age and before they begin sexual activity.

I strongly encourage parents to have their preteens and teens vaccinated for HPV.

Dr. Ashley Valenzuela is a gynecologic oncologist with Memorial Health in Savannah.