Vancouver teen, doctor urge parents to ensure kids get HPV vaccine to protect from warts, cancer

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter



What are your thoughts on the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine?

  • It’s great. Anything that prevents cervical cancer gets a thumbs up. 85%
  • It’s awful. It just gives teens the green light to have sex. 10%
  • What’s HPV? 5%

146 total votes.

photo These warts were caused by the human papillomavirus. More than 100 strains of HPV exist and can cause warts on different parts of the body, including the feet, hands, face, mouth and genitalia.


HPV by the numbers

79 million: Number of Americans currently infected with HPV.

14 million: Number of Americans newly infected with HPV each year.

360,000: Number of people in the U.S. who get genital warts each year.

12,000: Number of U.S. women who get cervical cancer each year.

6,700: Number of U.S. men who get oropharyngeal cancer (cancer in the back of throat) each year.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The decision was an easy one for 14-year-old Addie Gillas.

Get a vaccine that protects against the strains of human papillomavirus that most commonly cause cervical cancer — or take a chance with the most common sexually transmitted infection.

Even though Addie isn’t sexually active, she wanted to protect herself down the road from cervical cancer — which kills an estimated 4,000 women a year, according to the American Cancer Society.

“I think everyone should take it because you could take a little shot versus chemo,” Addie said. “I think it’s better to take a little shot.”

Physicians routinely recommend HPV vaccines for tween girls and boys. And while most parents agree to the vaccine for their children, it’s not always without hesitation, said Dr. James Heid, a physician with Salmon Creek Family Medicine.

“I think there’s a bit of stigma on the HPV vaccine because it’s a vaccine for, basically, a sexually transmitted infection,” Heid said.

Many parents think their kids aren’t at risk because they’re not sexually active. They also worry the vaccine will remove their teen’s fear of having sex, Heid said.

After talking with Heid about the benefits of the vaccine, though, most parents come around. “The teenagers aren’t thrilled about getting shots, but the parents understand this is something that’s important for society and most parents are choosing to get the vaccine,” he said.

Brenda Gillas urged ­Addie to get the vaccine after losing several people to cancer in a six-month span. Even though she worried about people connecting the vaccine to sexual activity, she wanted to protect her daughter from cancer.

After hearing the benefits of immunization, Addie was happy to be vaccinated — regardless of the stigma.

“I know I’m not having sex, so it doesn’t bother me,” Addie said. “I know the benefits outweigh the risk of people saying, ‘Oh, you’re having sex.’ 

“I think it was a good thing, and I don’t care what people think,” she added.

HPV infection common

Human papillomaviruses are common viruses that can cause warts. More than 100 strains of HPV exist. Most are harmless, but can cause warts on different parts of the body, including the feet, hands and face, according to the Mayo Clinic.

However, more than 40 strains of HPV can infect the genital areas of men and women when transmitted through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex. HPV can also be transmitted through oral sex, causing infection in the mouth and throat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Genital HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. HPV is so common, nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. In most cases, HPV goes away before causing any health problems, and most people don’t even know they have it. In 90 percent of cases, the HPV infection goes away on its own within two years, according to the CDC.

But sometimes the infections can cause health problems, such as genital warts and cervical cancer. Other less common cancers associated with HPV include cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis and anus, according to the CDC.

Each year, about 19,000 cancers caused by HPV occur in women, with cervical cancer being the most common. About 8,000 cancers caused by HPV occur each year in men, with oropharyngeal (throat) cancers being the most common, according to the CDC.

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first vaccine to protect against certain strains of HPV. The vaccines, which are given in a series of three shots over six months, protect against two of the most common strains that cause cervical cancer and two of the most common strains that cause external warts.

The national Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends HPV vaccines for girls and boys ages 11 and 12. If they aren’t fully immunized by age 12, the committee recommends that girls and women through age 26 and boys and men through age 21 get the vaccine.

The focus is on teenage girls because the cervix is more susceptible to HPV at a younger age, Heid said. By age 30, the cervix isn’t very susceptible to the infection, which is why they don’t vaccinate women older than 26, he said.

As for immunizing boys, Heid said, the idea is to reduce the number of carriers. Males carry and transmit HPV, though they rarely experience symptoms. Immunization prevents males from passing the infection to their partners, Heid said.

A recent study by the CDC found the immunization efforts appear to be paying off.

The study found that since the HPV vaccine was introduced, the prevalence of infections by the HPV strains targeted by the vaccines has decreased 56 percent among teenage girls.

“In six years, that we’re already seeing it cut the HPV infection rate in half in teenagers is phenomenal,” Heid said.

Addie said she hopes more people get vaccinated and wants to see the stigma diminish.

“Don’t judge people who get it,” she said. “It’s not like they got it to have sex or because they’re having sex. They got it because they want to be safe.”

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546;;;