HPV vaccine. I know you have heard about it. I also know that many of you have concerns about giving it to your child. How do I know? Because people keep asking me what I think about it and whether they should give it to their kid. In every conversation, there are some common threads: Is it safe? Is it necessary? Won’t it just give my teenager a green light to have sex? What is HPV anyway? There are a lot of questions and a lot of myths out there about this vaccine.
You probably can guess my response. Yes. Get your child the vaccine. But if you aren’t convinced just because I said so (it’s ok, I’m not that insulted), I’ve compiled some information for you. Here we go.
1. HPV is short for human papilomavirus. There are about 150 related viruses in this group (“HPVs”) and some of them cause cancer. In fact, virtually every single form of cervical cancer is caused by an HPV infection. In 2014, there were over 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer and over 4,000 deaths. But HPV doesn’t just cause cervical cancer. Nope. It is also associated with anal, vaginal, oropharyngeal (throat), and penile cancer as well. HPV is also really, really common. Nearly all sexually active men and women will get infected with HPV at some point — of course, not everyone gets cancer from an infection. But everyone can.
2. There are two types of HPV vaccine (Cevarix and Gardasil). Both types are aimed at the HPV types that most commonly cause cervical cancer, but only Gardasil is recommended for boys and girls. Gardasil is also effective at preventing genital warts. (Who wants warts, right?). Getting your adolescent vaccinated can help prevent infection with a cancer causing HPV type. Isn’t that reason enough to vaccinate?
3. But my kid is never going to have sex, so she does not need the vaccine. Ok. If you say so. Look, your daughter may not have sex until she is married and that is awesome if that is her choice. But it does not mean she won’t get infected with HPV. Women with only one sex partner are still at high risk of developing an HPV infection. And the number of the woman’s sex partners does not matter as much as the number of her male partner’s previous sex partners. So, yes, your child may not have a lot of sex, but her future husband just might have and you can’t prevent that. But you can prevent HPV infection — and potential development of cancer — by vaccinating.
4. The vaccines are not safe. Well actually they are. Between 2006 and 2008, there were more than 23 million doses of HPV vaccine administered in the United States. Of those, there were 12,424 reports of “adverse events.” For those of you unfamiliar with the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, anyone can file any complaint of an “adverse” outcome after any vaccine. The reports are not validated and in many cases, no one can be sure that the reported event was causally related to a vaccine. Now, of these unvalidated 12,424 reports, 94% of them were for non-serious events such as headache, dizziness, and nausea. So, only 6% of the 12,424 reports were for adverse events, which means that of 23 million vaccine doses over two years, there were 745 reported serious events. So the percentage of serious adverse events is roughly equal to .00003. And please keep in mind, that while there were 32 deaths reported, subsequent autopsy reports or medical records on each individual showed underlying medical conditions that could have caused the death. So, yes, there may be some small risk to the vaccine, but it is incredibly small.
5. Isn’t 11 or 12 years old a bit young for sex vaccines? She can decide when she is an adult. No. Unfortunately, that won’t work. As with other recommended vaccines, there is a purpose behind the recommended ages at which kids are supposed to get vaccinated. For HPV vaccine, the idea is to give your child a vaccine before he or she is even exposed to the virus — so, we go for 11 or 12. Now, I know what you are thinking: 11 or 12 — or even 15 and 16 year olds should not be having sex. I agree. But in addition to ensuring vaccination before exposure, it turns out that the HPV vaccine produces more immunity — it is more effective — if given in preteens instead of older adolescents. See? There’s a purpose. Vaccinating at ages 11 or 12 protects your child better from every being infected. (If your child does not get vaccinated at the recommended age, the FDA has approved giving the vaccine up to age 26, but again, it won’t be as effective).
6. By the way, the vaccine is NOT just for girls. Boys are supposed to get vaccinated too. The FDA has approved Gardasil to protect boys against genital warts and certain forms of cancer. As with girls, simply giving your child a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease does not mean you are giving the child license to have sex. Whether your teenager decides to have sex has nothing to do with whether you vaccinate her. Adolescents and twenty-somethings have been having sex without parental permission way before there was a vaccine. So, I can pretty much guarantee the vaccine won’t be viewed as any kind of license to get jiggy.
7. Know why else you should get your child the HPV vaccine? Because you are a patriot! Do you know that Americans behind other developed countries in HPV vaccination rates? In 2013 only about 38% of 13-year old girls had received all three doses; for boys it was a dismal 14%. But in the U.K. and Portugal, rates are close to 80%. In Australia, 70% of girls ages 12-17 are fully vaccinated. Do you really want those Kiwis to beat us at immunizing our kids? C’mon. Do it for the team. (U-S-A. U-S-A)
8. Cancer sucks. Why wouldn’t you want to prevent your child from a potentially devastating diagnosis?
And there you have it.
Get your kids the HPV vaccine.