JEFFREY BROWN: Five years ago, health officials first recommended the HPV vaccine be given to girls and young women to protect against the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease that’s a major cause of cervical cancer.
It’s been available to boys for the past two years to guard against other medical problems associated with sexual activity. But, today, for the first time, a federal advisory panel said that boys age 11 or 12 should routinely get the vaccine.
We get an explanation and update from Rob Stein, health and science reporter for The Washington Post.
ROB STEIN, The Washington Post: Hi. Nice to be here.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, why is the committee saying it’s time to turn from a suggestion into a recommendation?
ROB STEIN: Yes.
Well, the vaccine was approved in 2009 for boys. And at that point, they didn’t recommend that it become part of the routine vaccinations that all boys get as part of going in for their well baby visits or their childhood visits. But in the last few years, there’s been enough data that has accumulated where the committee now feels like it makes sense to recommend that, like girls, all boys that are 11 and 12 get — routinely get the vaccine.
JEFFREY BROWN: And remind us a little bit more about what HPV is and the risk associated with it.
ROB STEIN: Yes.
HPV, it’s the human papillomavirus. And it’s a sexually transmitted virus. It’s actually the most common sexually transmitted infection. And it can increase risk for all sorts of things. It can cause genital warts. In — as you mentioned, in girls and women, it can cause cervical cancer, and in boys and men and it can cause anal cancer, penile cancer, throat and mouth cancer. Actually, it’s become one of the leading causes, if not the leading cause, of throat cancer.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the vaccine, as we said, was recommended for girls 11 and 12. It’s been controversial from the start.
ROB STEIN: Yes, yes. This is one of those health issues that’s been kind of bogged down and got kind of sucked into the politics and economics of the some of the issues that it raises.
Early on, there was a concern among some parents that just giving a child a vaccine for a sexually transmitted virus might somehow send a signal to the children that it’s OK to become sexually active.
JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s of course played into some of the recent presidential politics.
ROB STEIN: Yes, that’s right. Well, yes, in Texas, where Rick Perry is governor, this was a big issue. And he tried to make the vaccine mandatory, and that got a lot of people upset, and they ended up having to reverse it.
And then Michele Bachmann weighed in and made some comments about some of the supposed health risks from the vaccine. And it got all caught up in the GOP presidential nomination process.
JEFFREY BROWN: Scientists clearly stand by the health associated with it.
ROB STEIN: Yes. The vaccine is extremely effective, and it’s been administered to more than 40 million girls so far in the United States. And so far, it appears to be very safe.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, my understanding, however, is that a very low — unexpectedly low, I think, percentage of girls have gotten the vaccine.
ROB STEIN: Yes. It’s been actually a big disappointment to public health advocates, because this was seen as a major breakthrough for preventing cervical cancer.
And so far, it’s only been about 40 percent of girls who are eligible have gotten at least one dose, and only about 30 percent have gotten all three doses of the vaccine that they need.
JEFFREY BROWN: And is that thought to be because of the talk surrounding it?
ROB STEIN: Yes. The thinking is that it’s because of all the controversy that has swirled around the vaccine. It’s a combination of factors.
Part of it is parents being sort of worried about giving it to children when they’re so young and they’re not even thinking about becoming sexually active. And also there’s been some concerns that it’s a new vaccine. A lot of parents just think, well, I’m not sure. I’m going to wait a little while to make sure this thing is safe.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, is it right that part of the thinking now in recommending it for boys is not only to help boys, but also to prevent cervical cancer for girls, through later on — later possible sexual activity?
ROB STEIN: Yes. It’s really — the thinking is sort of two-pronged. One is to protect the boys from all the cancers and the genital warts that the virus can cause, but it’s also to reduce the spread of the virus when they get older and have sexual partners. And that’s both for women and for other men.
JEFFREY BROWN: And is there reason to think that these new recommendations will be equally controversial?
ROB STEIN: It will be interesting to see how it plays out. It doesn’t seem to be creating the same sort of concerns about sexual activity that the recommendation for girls did.
But there still are some — a lot of people who are not so sure about how safe the vaccine is. And so it will be interesting to see what the uptake is. So far, only about 1 percent of boys who are eligible have gotten the vaccine. It’s been available since 2009.
JEFFREY BROWN: What about other factors like cost, like insurance coverage?
ROB STEIN: It’s a very expensive vaccine. It takes three doses. And when all is said and done, it costs at least $400 just for the vaccine itself. And then that doesn’t count all the doctor’s office visit costs.
And so that’s, again, one of the reasons why this recommendation is so important, because it could lead to more insurance companies covering the cost.
JEFFREY BROWN: So what happens next? What’s the next part of the process?
ROB STEIN: Well, this is a recommendation. So it still has to become a final set of guidelines. And that will come out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But they usually follow the recommendations of this committee. It’s a very influential committee that they rely on to set their guidelines.
JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of time frame are we talking about before this would become a…
ROB STEIN: Yes. They haven’t set a specific deadline, but it’s probably going to be pretty quick. They don’t usually spend a lot of time waiting on something like this.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Rob Stein of The Washington Post, thanks very much.
ROB STEIN: Nice to be here.