Guest post by: Rachel Moore, UW School of Nursing

Many parents are wondering why their sons need to get a vaccine that they’ve heard was developed to prevent cervical cancer when their sons don’t have a cervix! Parents may feel confused or frustrated when a health care provider tells them that their son needs the three shot series starting when they are 11 or 12 because they are sure that their child is not sexually active and that’s how you get HPV right? There are a couple misunderstandings that need to be cleared up.

First, the two most common types of HPV are responsible for about 64% of cervical cancers, but, there are more than 40 types of HPV that can cause genital warts or cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth and cervix.1,2 That being said, it is clear that girls aren’t the only one at risk for developing cancer.

Second, the best way to prevent disease is to protect someone from it well before they have any chance of being exposed to it. This is the approach we take with all vaccines. We vaccinate children as early as we know it’s safe to do so from things like polio, diseases of the liver like hepatitis A and B, pneumonia and even rotavirus (which can cause very severe infections in the gut). The idea behind vaccinating middle schoolers with the HPV vaccine is that they will have protection before they are ever exposed to the virus.2

Reproductive health is not always an easy topic for parents to talk about with their kids or even think about, but we know it’s important to do. Adolescents whose parents talk to them about sex are more likely to become sexually active at a later age and practice safer sex when they do decide to have a partner.3

So, why not look at the discussion of the HPV vaccine as a “table topic,” a way to bring up the subject and start an educational and open-ended discussion. The most important thing to understand about the vaccine is that it protects against cancer and all people, male, female, transgender, intersex, etc. are at risk. If we know how to prevent multiple types of cancer and all it takes is a few shots, why wouldn’t we provide that for our children?

Talking points:

  • The three series HPV vaccine (Cervarix, Gardasil or Gardasil 9) should be given to all healthy middle schoolers starting at ages 11 or 12 to prevent cancer
  • It has been proven to be more effective in younger adolescents
  • All genders are at risk of HPV and developing cancer


  1. Palefsky JM. Epidemiology of human papillomavirus infections. In: UpToDate, Post TW (Ed), UpToDate, Waltham, MA. (Accessed May 10, 2016).
  2. Human papillomavirus (HPV). Immunization Action Coalition Website. Updated February 23, 2016. Accessed May 10, 2016.
  3. Reproductive health: Tips for parents. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Website.