Shots that can save lives: Why students should get HPV vaccines

Lauryn Rosinski

Cancer has run in Megan Fishburn’s family for generations. Liver and colon cancer were especially predominant in her family. Fishburn, a junior fashion merchandising major, could not change her family’s medical history; however, through preventive measures, Fishburn and her mother could change her future.

When Fishburn was in eighth grade, her mother drove her to their family doctor and had Fishburn get the first of three shots of Gardasil. Gardasil is a vaccine that can prevent Human papillomavirus (HPV), a type of sexual transmitted infection that can lead to cancer.

“It just was a smart idea at the time,” Fishburn said. “If you have the opportunity to help strengthen yourself, whatever the case may be, you should take it.”

About 80 million Americans have HPV. It is so common that most sexually active men and women are infected by it at some point in their lives, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2006, Gardasil, created by Merck and Co. Inc., was licensed for use. This form of HPV vaccine targeted different strains of HPV. Since then, the 9vHPV was created to combat nine strains of HPV. Physicians recommend colleges students and those of college age use the most recent form of the vaccine. 

“We know that research has shown the HPV vaccination is highly effective in preventing HPV cancers,” said Diego Espino, vice president of community engagement for Ohio Planned Parenthood. “It is still very important to communicate the need for vaccinations.”

Espino said that since March 2014, approximately 67 million dosages of the HPV vaccine have been given in the United States. Further, he said, HPV in teenage girls has decreased by 56 percent.

Dr. Jennifer D’Abreau, the senior physician at Kent State’s University Health Services, said some of those who are affected do not display symptoms of HPV.

“If you have (the strains), there are really no good tests for them,” D’Abreau said.

D’Abreau said HPV can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, oral sex, anal sex and vaginal sex. It can also be spread to an infant through childbirth.

She added that while men obviously can’t get cervical cancer, they can be carriers of HPV.

“In many cases, the males are asymptomatic unless they have genital warts, which are only certain subtypes of the HPV virus,” D’Abreau said. “But they can pass it to the next person, male or female, and they can pass it to the next person and, at some point, if that next person is a female with a cervix, that’s when it can cause a pre-cancer or cancerous changes.”

Espino said a national survey showed 50 percent of parents did not realize men could contract HPV.

Matthew Mysliwiec, a senior nursing major, also feels that “men worry less” about getting HPV.

“We don’t have the possibility of getting cervical cancer … but we should be worried,” Mysliwiec said. “A male who carries the virus could easily spread it to a female without ever knowing it. I think the best form of prevention is universal precaution; just always be safe and you won’t have to worry as much.”

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends routine HPV vaccinations at 11 or 12 years old. However, the vaccination series can be started when a child is age nine. If children do not get the vaccine then, medical professionals still recommend males between the ages of 13 and 21 and women between the ages of 13 and 26 receive all three doses of the vaccine. Men who have sex with men can receive the vaccine until the age of 26.

Espino said these age groups have the highest risk of getting HPV.

The University Health Center currently gives the 9vHPV vaccine, D’Abreau said, and about 125 students have received an HPV vaccination this school year.

But many students still haven’t had the shot.

Morgan McLaughlin, a junior accounting major, said some parents do not let their children receive shots at younger ages.

“A lot of parents do not want to get their children vaccinated at all,” said McLaughlin, who received the Gardisil vaccination. “They are against every vaccination. Also … parents think, ‘Well, my child is only 12. I do not want them to be sexually active.’ They do not like the idea of it at all.”

Briana Schubert, a senior fashion merchandising major, said her mother did not want Schubert to receive the Gardasil shot because of worries about side effects.

“I was in early high school, maybe late junior high, so it wasn’t on the top of my priority list when it came to researching (the vaccination),” Schubert said. “I pretty much just listened to what my mom had to say.”

Espino said that the most common side effects from HPV vaccinations are mild. Some of these side effects include pain at the injection site, fever, headache and nausea.

Espino said HPV vaccinations are not dangerous.

“HPV vaccines are FDA-approved and are safe and effective,” Espino said. “In studies where the vaccines were tested, in thousands of people around the world, they showed no serious side effects. The leading medical centers support young people having access to HPV vaccinations.”

D’Abreau said that she feels many people do not get HPV vaccinations because of cost (about $500, covered by most insurance plans).

She said the University Health Center can help some students who cannot afford the vaccinations.

“If (students) qualify based on their incomes, they can receive the immunization through the drug company,” D’Abreau said. “They can complete the paperwork, and we will submit it on their behalf. Many times we can get the vaccine covered for the student. Do not let cost be a priority.”

D’Abreau said another reason people do not get the vaccination is because they have been infected with a strain already.

“I hear that a lot from the students,” D’Abreau said. “They think, ‘Well, if I have an abnormal pap smear or if I was told I had genital warts, I already have the HPV virus and I shouldn’t get the vaccine.’ Well, you might have the warts because of number nine (strain). Protect yourself against 11, 16 and 18.”

Some of these strains could cause high-risk HPV.

Cyndi Roller, an associate professor at the College of Nursing as well as a certified nurse practitioner and midwife, feels it is important for people to understand “the risks of high-risk HPV.”

“There are close to 200 strands of HPV,” Roller said. “Some people are most concerned about the genital warts … but the ones that are really scary are the high-risk ones that you don’t see. I think the key thing is protection.”

Overall, Fishburn said, students won’t regret getting the shots.

“The chicken pox vaccine had to have been seen as a crazy thing at first, too,” Fishburn said. “We only have so much time. Why not try to make it stretch out a little for a while longer?”

If students are interested in potentially receiving an HPV vaccination, call the University Health Center at (330)-672-2322.

Lauryn Rosinski is the Colleges of Nursing, Public Health and Podiatry reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].