In an era of $500,000 cancer treatments, you’d expect a vaccine series that costs about $300 and helps prevent several types of cancer to be popular with physicians, insurers, and consumers. It’s not, and, as a result, people are dying. I should know — I’m one of them.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause changes in the body that lead to six cancers: cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancer in women; penile cancer in men; and anal cancer in both women and men. It can also cause oropharyngeal cancer — cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils — in both sexes. In the U.S., approximately 30,000 new cancers attributable to HPV are diagnosed each year.
In 2006, the first vaccine became available to protect against HPV infection. I was 38 years old at the time, well above the upper age limit of 26 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for getting the vaccine. Ideally it should be given before the teen years, but can be given up to age 26.
Uptake of the HPV vaccine in the U.S. is abysmal, with just 49 percent of girls and 37 percent of boys having received the recommended HPV vaccination series.
Individuals who oppose the use of vaccines argue that safety concerns should preclude the use of the HPV vaccine. I disagree. The safety and effectiveness of this vaccine to protect against cancer-causing strains of the HPV virus have been unquestionably proven. Others point to side effects of the HPV vaccine as a reason not to vaccinate young Americans. These may include pain, swelling, redness, itching, bruising, bleeding, or a lump at the injection site as well as headache, fever, nausea, dizziness, tiredness, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and sore throat. Most people who get the vaccine experience no side effects from it other than the pain that accompanies most shots.
Missing from the discussion are the risks of not getting the vaccine. As someone with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer, I can describe a few of them. And I can say with certainty I would gladly have experienced any of the vaccine-related side effects rather than the dozen or so “side effects” of the cancer and its treatment that I’m living with. I’ve illustrated them on the image below.
Some of these side effects, like hair loss, aren’t hazardous. Others are. I’ve spent time in an intensive care unit for my rapid heart rate, and have had to go to the emergency department several times for my pleural effusion and other issues. All of these pale beside the biggest “side effect” — a terminal disease that will eventually take my life.
I urge all parents to talk to your child’s doctor about the HPV vaccine. I wish my parents had that opportunity when I was young, as it could have prevented the cancer that’s killing me.
Michael D. Becker is president and founder of MDB Communications LLC. He previously served as president, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, and director for several publicly traded biotechnology companies, including Cytogen, VioQuest Pharmaceuticals, and Relmada Therapeutics. He describes his fight with HPV-mediated oropharyngeal cancer in “A Walk with Purpose: Memoir of a Bioentrepreneur.”