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Kaiser Permanente Washington physician spreads awareness of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). While cervical cancer typically occurs in women between the ages of 20 and 50, HPV can affect all people. It’s important for both men and women to be vaccinated. The vaccine is generally given to preteens so they are protected from HPV infections that can cause cancer later in life.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends young people get the vaccine at age 11 or 12, although they can get it as early as 9. Dr. Wells says that early vaccination ensures people have the vaccine before they become sexually active. (Although older adults who have not received the vaccine should also talk with their providers about it.)

"The goal is to administer a vaccine before exposure," said Dr. Wells. "HPV is predominantly sexually transmitted, and it's spread through skin-to-skin contact with someone who is infected."

The impact of HPV

HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that can cause a variety of illnesses.

"Men can transmit HPV to their women partners," said Dr. Wells. "But then, men also have their own risks of having HPV, including genital warts, but also anal and oral cancers."

Dr. Wells, who was a medical student at the University of Washington when the original vaccine was developed, gets excited discussing the vaccine. "It's vaccine-preventable cancer, which was pretty exciting when we discovered this,” she said. "A vaccine that can prevent cancer is phenomenal."

A shift in stigma

Dr. Wells is beginning to treat the children of patients who received the first vaccines against HPV. She says that she is seeing a lessening of stigma against the vaccine. Initially, patients worried about vaccinating young people against a sexually transmitted disease but now are more likely to see the vaccine as part of a good health regime.

While Dr. Wells has seen good vaccination rates in her own practice, it’s still important to spread the word generally. While HPV vaccination rates have been rising steadily since the vaccine was released, a study found rates stalled in 2022 at 76% for 13- to 17-year-olds.

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