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Protect against cancer through vaccination

Cancer prevention takes many forms: eating right, exercising, not smoking and getting regular health screenings. For two types of cancer, cervical and liver, you can add vaccination to the list of things we can do to protect against cancer.

Liver cancer vaccine

In 1981, the hepatitis B vaccine (HBV) for liver cancer became the first FDA-approved vaccine to prevent cancer, known as a preventive or prophylactic vaccine. Most children today receive the vaccine shortly after birth. Hepatitis B, especially chronic infection, can lead to liver cancer. In fact, chronic infection with hepatitis B or hepatitis C is the most common liver cancer risk factor.

A year after FDA approval, in 1982, routine hepatitis B vaccination was recommended for some adults and children in the United States. In 1991, it was recommended for all children. The HBV vaccine is credited with dramatically decreasing new hepatitis B infections among children and adolescents. Since 1990, infections have fallen by more than 95 percent. Other age groups have experienced a 75 percent drop.

The hepatitis B virsus can spread from person to person in three main ways:

  • Sharing contaminated needles, such as in drug use
  • Unprotected sex
  • Childbirth

The risk of contracting hepatitis B through blood transfusion is now low in the U.S. because blood is tested for both hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Vaccination against hepatitis B offers long-term – and possible lifelong – protection against infection. After a baby’s first dose at birth, a second is given when the baby is between 1 and 2 months old, then a third dose is administered between 6 and 18 months of age. Children who were not vaccinated when they were babies should be given the vaccine.

Among who are at risk for hepatitis B infection also should be vaccinated. You are considered at-risk if you:

  • Have had sex with someone infected with hepatitis B
  • Are a man who has sex with men
  • Inject drugs
  • Have more than one sex partner
  • Have chronic liver or kidney disease
  • Have diabetes, especially if you are younger than age 60
  • Have a job that exposes you to human blood or other body fluids
  • Live in a household with someone infected with hepatitis B
  • Work or live in an institution for the developmentally disabled
  • Have kidney dialysis
  • Travel to countries where hepatitis B is common
  • Have HIV

It’s recommended that pregnant women get vaccinated if they have one of the above risk factors, though any pregnant woman who wants the protection may be vaccinated. In general, any adult who was not vaccinated may request it. As with babies and children, adults receive three doses of the vaccine. The second dose it four weeks after the first, and the third dose is scheduled five months after the second.

Cervical cancer vaccine

Two preventive vaccines for cervical cancer are now available: Gardasil® and Cervarix®. Both protect against infections from two types of human papillomavirus (HPV), types 16 and 18, which are responsible for about 70 percent of cervical cancers. Those types also cause vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile, and head and neck cancers.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. With more than 100 types of HPV, nearly all sexually active men and women will contract at least one type at some point in their lives. But an HPV infection does not necessarily mean cancer will develop. About 90 percent of HPV infections clear up by themselves within two years. Only those that persist can cause serious health problems, including cancer.

Both Gardasil and Cervarix are FDA-approved. Gardasil was first in 2006, followed by Cervarix in 2009. In addition to HPV types 16 and 18, Guardasil protects against types 6 and 11, which cause 90 percent of genital wart cases in both males and females. 

HPV vaccination is recommended as part of the routine immunization schedule for boys and girls aged 11 or 12, with catch-up vaccination recommended for those 13-26 years old. Both Gardasil and Cervarix have been shown to prevent precancers in women.

Gardasil and Cervarix are both recommended for:

  • Girls who are 11 or 12 years old
  • Gardasil for females aged 13 to 26 and Cervarix for females aged 13 to 25 who did not get any or all doses when they were younger

Gardasil is also recommended for:

  • Boys who are 11 or 12 years old
  • Males ages 13 to 21 who did not get any or all doses when they were younger

Through age 26, Gardasil is recommended for the following men who did not get any or all doses when they were younger and:

  • Are gay or bisexual
  • Have had sex with another man
  • Have a compromised immune systems

Three doses of either vaccine provide immunity for about five years. The HPV vaccine is given as an injection into the muscle in the upper arm or thigh. The first shot may be given any time beginning at 9 years of age. The second dose is given two months after the first shot, and the third dose is given four months after the second shot.

The HPV vaccine is most effective when it’s given before someone is exposed to HPV. That’s why vaccination is recommended for preteens before they become sexually active. Preteens also have a higher immune response compared with older teens and young women.
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