This article appears in the Health Living fall 2017 magazine.

Can a shot prevent cancer? The answer is yes.

“HPV is an anti-cancer vaccine that can protect a child’s health long-term and prevent a number of cancers,” said Dr. Lois Ramondetta, professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston.

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s so common that nearly all sexually active men and women will get the virus at some point in their lives.

Unfortunately, it’s statistics like these that scare some parents away from getting their children vaccinated.

Proven safe and effective at preventing multiple types of cancer, the HPV vaccine is often overlooked by parents or not discussed by health-care providers, Ramondetta said. A primary concern is safety, but the vast majority of people who receive the vaccine have no side effects other than redness and a sore arm from the injection, she said.

The HPV vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration 10 years ago and no serious adverse effects have occurred since, Ramondetta said.

Low vaccination rates

Across the United States, 41.9 percent of girls and 28.1 percent of boys are completing the recommended vaccine series, according to a 2015 CDC report.

New CDC guidelines recommend boys and girls ages 11 to 12 receive two doses of the 9-valent HPV vaccine at least six months apart. This is a revision from a previous guideline that required three shots, Ramondetta said. Adolescents 15 and older should continue to complete the three-dose series.

The vaccine is not recommended for people older than 26 because it is less effective in lowering cancer risk, according to the American Cancer Society.

“We hope that requiring two shots instead of three will make it easier for children to be vaccinated, bringing rates closer to the (government’s) Healthy People 2020 goal of 80 percent,” Ramondetta said.

HPV-related cancers are on the rise, with about 39,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the United States, Ramondetta said. The HPV vaccine is given to girls to prevent cervical cancer, but it also prevents vulvar and vaginal cancers. It prevents 90 percent of anal cancer in men and women, and up to half of penile cancers. Additionally for boys, it helps prevent oropharyngeal, or middle throat, cancers. The vaccine protects both sexes against non-cancerous genital warts and some head and neck cancers.

Most cases of HPV do not result in symptoms, and often people don’t know they have it. Other strains of HPV can lead to life-threatening cancers. According to the National Cancer Institute, in the United States, high-risk HPV types cause approximately 3 percent of all cancer cases among women and 2 percent of all cancer cases among men.

“I see people diagnosed who lose everything. Their health, their relationships, and it’s totally preventable,” Ramondetta said.

Longer the wait, the less effective

A 2014 study published in the journal Translational Andrology and Urology found the top five reasons for parents not vaccinating adolescents with the HPV vaccine are lack of knowledge, not needed or necessary, safety concerns/side effects, not recommended, and not sexually active.

But, the best time to get vaccinated is before infection occurs, Ramondetta said. That means before a child becomes sexually active.

“It’s something that parents don’t want to think about. It doesn’t necessarily mean intercourse. It could be just close touching,” said Ramondetta, who recommends the vaccine.

Adding HPV to the traditional schedule of childhood vaccinations simply means you’re protecting your child.

“It’s really a no-brainer. Trust the science. This is the first time a vaccine is available to prevent cancer,” Ramondetta said.