tween hpv vaccineAs a parent, I try to protect my daughter against as much as I can. I put her in a car-seat with 5 point restraints, I make sure she’s wearing a jacket if it’s cold outside. She gets multiple servings of fruits and veggies each day, and I take her in for routine well child checks with her pediatrician. For my family, we decided that we also wanted to protect her from harmful infections, so we had her vaccinated. She’s only one year old, but I’m hopeful that as she grows she’ll continue to have good health and will never have to experience the burden of cancer. My father recently died of  cancer and a very close family friend (who never smoked a day in her life) is dying of esophageal cancer. In an effort to decrease my daughter’s risk, I’m also going to take her in to her pediatrician for the HPV vaccine when she’s 11 or 12 years old.

There has been recent media coverage that shows the Human Papilloma Virus or HPV vaccine works. It safely and effectively decreases the risk of cancerous changes on the cervix (the lower portion of the uterus) and we’re finding more and more evidence that other types of cancer (throat, esophageal, anal) are linked to HPV infection and could be reduced with the vaccine. It also protects against genital warts (which may not be as dangerous as cancer, but can be embarrassing and uncomfortable). It’s estimated that if we increase vaccine coverage to 80% (that means that 80% eligible girls receive the vaccine) we could prevent 53,000 cases of cervical cancer over the lifetime of those girls! So why are our vaccination rates so low? Our rates of coverage haven’t changed over the past couple of years.

Well, here are some things that the Centers for Disease Control have listed as reasons for our low vaccine rates:

Many parents don’t think it’s necessary. This is not an infection that a person usually gets while they are a child and it doesn’t lead to visible problems (like mumps or chicken pox), so many don’t realize how much it can prevent.

Doctors aren’t routinely recommending it. The Gardisil vaccine has been available for the past 6 years. It is relatively new and many medical practices may forget to mention it to families. Most vaccines are given when our kids are infants and toddlers (though definitely not all) so asking about this one may fall off the radar of busy medical providers.

HPV is acquired through sexual activity and my child isn’t sexually active. This is a vaccine that we want people to get before they are ever exposed to the virus. HPV is the most common STD. It’s estimated that 70-80% of sexually active adults have been exposed to the virus. That means that most of us parents have been infected at some point in our lives! The immune systems of kids ages 11 and 12 mount the best response to the vaccine which means this is the ideal time to give it: before they are ever exposed to the virus and while their body can create the protective antibodies that will fight the infection in the future. If your teen is sexually active, it’s not too late!  The vaccine protects against 4 different types of the HPV virus, so it is still recommended.

I have a son, so he doesn’t need it. It is recommended that boys receive the vaccine at age 11 or 12 too. They are susceptible to head and neck cancers as well as genital warts. Males are also the people who spread the virus to females.

HPV vaccine is covered by most insurance carriers and by our Washington State Medicaid. It is safe and effective. Side effects of the vaccine include pain or redness at the site of injection and a low grade fever. People who faint with needles may also experience dizziness and fainting, so tell your teen’s provider if they’ve ever had trouble with a blood draw or vaccination in the past.  If your teen is over the age of 12, it’s not too late to receive the vaccine as it can be given up to age 26. Ask your teen’s health care provider for more information. By your asking, you may prompt them to remember to talk about it with other families too.

For more information on HPV vaccine safety, see How the CDC Monitors Vaccine Safety. And check out our previous posts on the HPV vaccine:

Michael Douglas, the CDC, and the HPV Vaccine

HPV Vaccine for boys?