The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently reported that only about half of teen girls in the U.S. have received the human papillomavirus vaccine. The need for this vaccine is clear. About 20 million people, most in their late teens and early 20s, are infected with human papillomavirus.

HPV infection can cause cervical cancer. Each year about 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 4,000 women die from it in the U.S. Fortunately we now have a very good preventive weapon for this type of cancer—the HPV vaccine.

Families frequently question why it is recommended to give the vaccine to all young women, starting at age 11 or 12. These are very reasonable questions. Here are a few thoughts. The type of HPV that can cause cervical cancer is passed from person to person by sexual contact. Vaccination against HPV can only provide protection if the vaccine doses are administered before exposure to the germ. Most individuals eventually are sexually active. Unfortunately partners are not always honest about their past sexual history and there’s also a small but real risk that a young woman could be sexually assaulted.

Without question, vaccines are safe and extremely important. Offering the HPV vaccine as a regular part of preteen health care makes sense.

Lyn Ranta, MD~ Lyn Ranta, MD, director of Physician Affairs, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin

Dr. Ranta is a co-leader of Children’s Hospital’s immunization initiative, and she treated children as a community pediatrician for more than 20 years.

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