Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection among adults and teenagers in the US: Nearly 80% will develop the infection during their lifetime, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
While HPV, in most cases, can be treated and will go away on its own, some types of the virus never go away and can lead to cancer or genital warts. Because most people who have HPV never develop any symptoms, it’s easily spread during sexual activity.
Proven to be safe and effective, vaccination is the best way to prevent HPV and its potential health impacts. When it’s given at the recommended age (starting at 11 or 12), the HPV vaccine can help protect against the diseases caused by HPV, including cervical and other cancers.
Although the vaccines have been available in the US well over a decade, there seem to be lingering questions about it in parenting circles. Healthe-Matters editors spoke with Dr. Jose Tavarez, a pediatrician with First Physicians Group, to get answers to frequently asked Qs about HPV vaccination for children.
HPV Vaccine FAQ for Parents
Q: Why does my child need the HPV vaccine?
Vaccination not only helps prevent children from potentially catching HPV and passing it on once they become sexually active, but it offers long-lasting protection against cancers caused by HPV. I strongly advise having children vaccinated against HPV at the recommended schedule, as do experts at the CDC and major medical organizations.
Q: Does the vaccine really work?
HPV vaccination works extremely well, as studies continue to show. According to the CDC, incidence of the virus types that cause most HPV-linked cancers and genital warts have dropped 71% among teenage girls, thanks to the vaccine. And the HPV-related cervical precancers that are often linked to cervical cancer have dropped 40% among vaccinated women.
Q: When should my child be vaccinated for HPV?
The CDC-recommended routine HPV vaccination schedule — for girls and boys — starts at 11 to 12 years old, but the first dose can be given as early as 9 years old.
- For those 9 to 14 years old, two shots of vaccine are recommended; the second shot should be given six to 12 months after the first one.
- For those age 15 and older, three shots of vaccine are recommended, and they should be given within six months.
There are special situations where the vaccination schedule may change, for example in immunocompromised children and those with history of sexual abuse or assault. In these cases, talk with the child’s doctor about what is recommended.
HPV vaccination is recommended for women and men through age 45. Anyone younger than 45 who has not yet been vaccinated for HPV should talk with his/her doctor about getting the vaccine as soon as possible.
Q: Why is the HPV vaccine given to such young kids?
Studies have shown that the immune system is stronger at younger ages, and at age 11 and 12, patients will have a better immune response to the vaccine. Also, vaccinating children at the adolescent stage means they will be protected before they are likely to be exposed to HPV.
Q: Do I really need to vaccinate my son — even though he can’t get cervical cancer?
Absolutely. When the vaccine first hit the market, it was recommended mainly for women and girls to prevent cervical cancer. But we’ve since learned that HPV is also linked to other cancers that can affect males as well; these include penile, oropharyngeal (back of the throat) and anal cancer. Since HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, vaccinating boys not only prevents them from getting genital warts or linked cancers, but it also prevents them from getting HPV and spreading the virus to others.
Q: Is the HPV vaccination safe?
HPV vaccination is proven to be very safe. Since it first launched in the US in 2006, more than 100 million doses of HPV vaccine have been distributed. Currently, there are three brands of HPV vaccine — Gardasil 9, Gardasil and Cervarix; each went through years of extensive safety testing before being licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As with any medication, the vaccines may cause minor side effects, but the benefits of HPV vaccination far outweigh potential side effects.
Simply put, getting the HPV vaccine now for your child (or yourself) is better than treating an HPV-linked disease later.
For more info, visit the CDC website or email questions to AskAnExpert@smh.com.
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Board-certified pediatrician Jose Tavarez, MD, says there's nothing more rewarding than helping his young patients grow and develop, from birth to young adulthood. He serves patients and families at the First Physicians Group Pediatrics office in Lakewood Ranch (941-366-3000).