What To Know About The HPV Vaccine

by Christine Burke
Anna Anisimova / Getty

As a parent of two teenagers, the topic of sex comes up pretty frequently in our house. My husband and I have an open, honest dialogue with our teens because we want them to have accurate information when it comes time to make decisions with their sexual partners.

We not only discuss the mechanics of sex and the emotions that come with being in a committed sexual relationship, we’ve also discussed staying physically healthy when they are intimate with another person. My kids know about the importance of condoms, the consequences of sexually transmitted infections and the types of birth control available.

My husband and I feel strongly that we need to arm them with the tools to not only have sex safely, but to enjoy the experience of being intimate with as little worry as possible.

And that includes getting our kids vaccinated for the Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV.

What is HPV?

HPV is a virus that is transmitted through vaginal, anal, and oral sexual activity, and it is a known cause of cervical and throat cancers. According to the latest statistics from the CDC, approximately 79 million people are infected by HPV and about 14 million people become newly infected per year. The CDC also reports that, by age 50, at least 4 out of every 5 women will have been infected with HPV at one point in their lives.

The virus is linked to cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis and anus, as well as cancers of the throat, base of the tongue and tonsils. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) and it is spread by having oral, vaginal or anal sex with an infected partner. HPV typically does not cause symptoms and often goes away on its own, making it difficult to know if your partner is infected at the time of intercourse.

What parents need to know about HPV vaccination

For parents, the topic of HPV vaccination is fraught with controversy, and misleading and incorrect information make it difficult to make an informed choice for your child.

Unfounded fears about vaccines, long term effects and a general lack of knowledge regarding HPV has made many parents resistant to discussing the HPV vaccine with their children’s doctors and having their children vaccinated against HPV. In fact, the American Cancer Society states, “myths and rumors shared on social media, blogs, and alternative health websites make claims that may scare people away from this life-saving vaccine.”

Here are seven facts parents need to know about the HPV vaccine:

1. The HPV vaccine must be given before exposure to the HPV virus.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (AICP) recommends that children be vaccinated between ages 11 and 12. Doing so early ensures that your child will be vaccinated before exposure to HPV and will allow your child to have plenty of time to build up antibodies to the virus before becoming sexually active. And, don’t panic: getting your child vaccinated early does not mean they will have sex sooner. See #5.

2. The HPV vaccine is safe. Yes, REALLY.

The HPV vaccine has been around for more than 10 years and, in that time, scientists and researchers have meticulously studied the effects in thousands of vaccine recipients. 80 million doses have been given with very few serious problems in patients. Actual science and hard statistics show that the HPV vaccine is perfectly safe.

3. There are literally no side effects from the HPV vaccine. None. Seriously.

Aside from a sore arm after the injection, your child will likely not suffer any long term effects from the HPV vaccine. Reports that the vaccine causes infertility are false and actual science shows that the vaccine is safe for most kids. So, stop telling people that your best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s mother’s niece had an issue with the HPV vaccine because it’s probably not true.

4. HPV infections are decreasing.

Recent research shows that prevalence of vaccine-type HPV has significantly decreased among women 18-59 years of age from 2009-2010 and 2013-2014. Since HPV cancers take more than a decade to develop and the vaccine has only been around for a decade, it’s going to take a few more years to prove to the naysayers that the HPV vaccine is effective. So sit tight.

5. You are not encouraging ‘promiscuity’ just by getting your kid vaccinated for HPV.

One of the biggest arguments I hear from parents is that the HPV vaccination is basically a free pass to have sex indiscriminately. False, false, false. The HPV vaccine prevents the spread of HPV and, if given early, your teen will have the benefit of building up antibodies to HPV. It’s up to you to have a regular dialogue with your teen about sex.

6. Boys should get the HPV vaccine, too.

Statistics show that about 8 or 9 out of 10 sexually active adults will have at least one type of HPV in their lifetime. Cervical cancer is linked to HPV, but cancers of the anus, penis, mouth and throat affect men, too. The HPV vaccine helps limit the spread of HPV and protects against HPV linked cancers and genital warts.

7. Real talk: the HPV vaccine could save your child’s life.

There are so many factors that are out of a parent’s control but protecting your child against cancers caused by HPV is easy. I don’t know a single parent who wouldn’t want to spare their child the agony of anal or cervical cancer. Seriously. And by vaccinating your kid, you are also protecting other children from HPV linked cancers. I, for one, am grateful to any parent who is willing to help keep my child safe.

HPV vaccine is safe, effective and necessary. And, considering the numbers of HPV-related cancers are decreasing significantly as the years go, getting your child vaccinated should be a no-brainer. If the trends continue, and the number of vaccinated kids continues to rise, we have the chance to eradicate HPV related cancers or, at the very least, make a dent in the number of people who suffer from the cancers caused by HPV.