If you could keep your child from getting cancer, would you? Almost every parent would answer yes to this question. But while more kids are getting the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that prevents many types of cancer, many girls and boys still aren’t covered by this important immunization that can prevent disease and save lives.
At Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, we are committed to helping make sure all kids are protected against HPV. We have worked to increase immunization rates among the kids we care for, steadily increasing rates every year since 2015. In 2018, more than 67 percent of the 13- to 18-year-olds we see at our primary care clinics were fully immunized against HPV — but we still must do better.
As a pediatrician, I talk with many parents about the importance of getting their daughters and sons immunized against HPV. The HPV vaccine is just as important and essential to kids’ health as a measles, mumps or meningitis vaccine or a yearly flu shot.
What is HPV?
HPV is an extremely common virus that is easily spread, especially among teens and young adults, by intimate skin-to-skin contact.
Each year, there are about 26,000 new cases of cancers caused by HPV — and most of these could be prevented by the HPV vaccine. They include cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer in women, penile cancer in men, and cancers of the throat and anus in both genders. The HPV vaccine can also prevent pre-cancers of the cervix, which require treatment that can negatively affect a woman’s fertility.
When should kids get the HPV vaccine?
Starting at age 11, preteens should be vaccinated with two doses of HPV vaccine six months apart.
- Like all vaccines, we want to give the HPV vaccine before a child is potentially infected. Getting the vaccine at age 11 or 12 protects your child before they are exposed.
- Studies show that HPV vaccine gives a better immune response in preteens — so vaccinating at ages 11 and 12 provides the best protection possible.
- If you wait until your child is older, they may end up needing three shots instead of two.
My child is not sexually active. Why should he or she get the vaccine?
Because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, it can sometimes be difficult for parents to understand why their 11- and 12-year-olds, who are not sexually active, need the vaccine.
- Vaccines are only effective if they are given before a person is exposed to an infection.
- HPV is so common that almost everyone will be infected at some point. Most people infected will never know.
- Because HPV causes cancers in both males and females, it’s important to immunize boys and girls against the virus.
- Even if someone waits until marriage to have sex or only has one partner, they could still be exposed if their partner was exposed.
- The vaccine is more effective in younger teens than in older ones.
Is the HPV vaccine safe and does it work?
Studies continue to show the HPV vaccine is extremely effective, decreasing the number of infections and precancerous HPV in young people since it has been available.
The HPV vaccine is very safe — more than 170 million doses have been distributed with no serious safety concerns. As with any vaccine, a child may have pain or redness in the arm after injection. Some teens or preteens can faint after any kind of procedure, so we always have them rest in the clinic room for about 15 minutes after the shot to monitor for possible side effects.
If you have questions about the HPV vaccine, talk to your pediatrician.
Learn more about Yolanda Wolff, MD.