William Schaffner, MD, is professor of preventive medicine and medicine (infectious diseases) at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. Additionally, he serves as a hospital epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University Hospital and is immediate past-president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Vaccines can prevent cancer — this is not science fiction

What disease do people fear most? It’s no contest: Cancer.

At one time we fantasized about having a weapon against cancer that’s better than early detection. Now we do, and I’m not just talking about better treatment. We have vaccines to actually prevent some cancers by preventing the viral infections that lead to them.

So why doesn’t everyone get these vaccines when they should?

The youngest generation, if they received the complete immunization schedule for hepatitis B vaccine during infancy, shouldn’t have to worry about getting HBV-associated liver cancer. That still leaves a huge population at risk: children who missed the infant immunizations, adults in high-risk groups (that includes us; 15% of physicians haven’t had the vaccine) and contacts of people with chronic hepatitis B infection.

Then there’s the HPV vaccine. About half of all sexually active men and women will be infected with HPV at some time in their lives. That’s a staggering statistic! Immunization with the HPV vaccine before young folks begin having sex would prevent the infection and the associated cancers: Cervical carcinoma as well as other sexually linked cancers in both women and men.

The HPV immunization rate remains abysmally low. About 60% of adolescent females have not received any of the three recommended doses. What’s worse, half their parents have no intention of getting their daughters vaccinated.

We need to tell parents, adolescents, and adult patients at risk for vaccine-linked cancers — as well as our colleagues, who also should be passing along the message — that they can do something to rewrite cancer’s future. This is one instance when it’s okay to play into people’s fears.

Why should anyone develop cancer if a vaccine could prevent it?

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