HPV vaccination among U.S. teens remains low despite a slight increase from the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Partnership for Women and Families.
As a parent and a practicing clinician, the fact that many of our children are missing an opportunity to get protected against HPV, short for the human papillomavirus (a common sexually transmitted disease) and related cancers concerns me. Since the introduction of the HPV vaccine in 2006, the number of cervical cancer cases has been cut in half. In half. That’s monumental. We know this vaccine works, and we need to use it to the fullest extent possible.
The vaccine is safe, too. In the more than 67 million doses given thus far, no serious safety events have occurred. The most commonly reported event is fainting, which happens with other vaccines given to teens, as well, leading to our usual practice of having teens sit for 15 minutes after vaccination.
HPV infects about 79 million Americans, 14 million of whom become infected each year. About 21,000 women are affected by cancer linked with HPV, and cervical cancer is the most common. More than 4,000 women, usually in child-bearing years, die of cervical cancer. It’s also associated with other cancers, such as those that affect the throat, tongue and tonsils, in men. But the infection that causes these cancers can be prevented with the vaccine series. What parent wouldn’t want his or her child to be protected against cancer?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: HPV FAQ
The HPV vaccines are given as a series of three shots over six months to protect against HPV infection and the health problems the infection can cause, according to the CDC. Two (Cervarix and Gardasil) protect against cervical cancers in women. One (Gardasil) protects against genital warts and cancers of the anus, vagina and vulva. Both vaccines are available for girls. Only Gardasil is available for boys.
I recommend to families that children — both boys and girls — get the vaccine well before they’re sexually active to offer the best protection; typically, we suggest ages 11 or 12. And the full series — all three shots — need to be taken in order to be truly effective.
“We don’t wait for exposure to occur before we vaccinate with any other routinely recommended vaccine,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, told CNN.
I sometimes hear from parents that they’re worried their son or daughter will be encouraged to have sexual relations because they’ve been vaccinated. While I understand their concern, there is no link between getting vaccinated and increased sexual activity.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen firsthand the devastation that vaccine-preventable diseases cause in children who haven’t been immunized. Let’s work together to take HPV-associated cancers off that list; it’s the right thing to do.
Patsy Stinchfield, infectious disease nurse practitioner, is the director of Infection Prevention & Control and the Children’s Immunization Project at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.