In his speech at Rice a few months ago, Vice President Joe Biden said our generation will see such radical changes in our lifetime that we can end cancer as we know it. Although we may be tempted to write off this responsibility to scientists and researchers, Rice students themselves have access to a vaccine right now that can help bring an end to up to seven different types of cancer. The human papillomavirus vaccine is available at the Student Health Center and, beginning this semester, is entirely reimbursable under Rice’s student health insurance.
The human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection, so common that almost all sexually active people will become infected with at least one type of HPV. Condoms do not offer protection against the infection, and HPV can even be transmitted through the shared use of sex toys. HPV has been linked to about 60 percent or more of vaginal, vulval, penile and oropharyngeal cancers. For cervical, anal and rectal cancer, this number goes up to 90 percent. Other types of HPV cause genital warts. There is no cure.
The HPV vaccine has existed for 10 years, but in the United States, less than half of women and only about a quarter of men are vaccinated. Part of the challenge of vaccination is logistical because the vaccine requires a series of shots six month apart, but politicization of the STI, unfounded questioning of the vaccination’s safety and lack of awareness have also kept vaccination rates low. Several Rice students I have spoken with said their parents had refused the vaccine, uncomfortable with the idea of their child contracting a sexually transmitted infection. If you were not vaccinated as a preteen, it is likely that one of these factors came into play.
You still have the opportunity to guard yourself against this infection and against cancer. Rice students are fortunate to have easy and, for those with Aetna student health insurance, free access to the catch-up HPV vaccine for men and women up to age 26, although this fact is not well-known. Given the serial nature of the vaccine and its time sensitivity, the best time to get this catch-up vaccine is right now on this campus. It is unlikely that the vaccine will be so exceedingly convenient for you to access later in life, and the longer you are unvaccinated, the greater your risk of contracting HPV. Some have already started taking advantage of this opportunity. Under the new reimbursement policy implemented this fall, the Student Health Center’s vaccination rate increased from four shots given last semester to 18 so far this semester.
Rice students can only be a part of this step in cancer prevention if they are educated on HPV and its vaccine. If you are interested in learning more or have more questions about coverage, I encourage you to attend the upcoming Baker Institute for Public Policy breakfast panel on HPV this Friday, which will feature experts from the Center for Disease Control, MD Anderson and Texas State Health Services.
Rice’s culture of care includes considering the impact of our actions on the rest of the community. Obtaining the HPV vaccine is aligned with this responsibility, as it provides peace of mind not only to you but also your sexual partner. All it takes is a few trips to Student Health Services, and you can rest assured knowing you are caring for your community and doing your part in ending cancer.