Talk to Your Child's Doctor About HPV Cancer Prevention
The Importance of the HPV Vaccine for Preteen Boys and Girls
When certain types of cancer can be prevented by a childhood vaccine, it would be assumed that vaccination rates would be off the charts for this vaccine. However, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is the most under-utilized immunization for children.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that every year in the United States 31,000 women and men are diagnosed with a cancer caused by HPV infection. Most of these cancers could be prevented by HPV vaccination.
In 2016, about 65 percent of girls received the first dose of HPV vaccine compared to 56 percent of boys receiving the first dose, according to the CDC. Although most children are getting their first dose of HPV vaccine, the CDC also reports that many children are not completing the vaccination series. Only 43 percent of teens are up to date on all the recommended doses of HPV vaccine.
Dr. Kimberly Martin, DO, MPH and assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at OU-Tulsa, talked about the importance of the HPV vaccine for both girls and boys.
“HPV is a very common virus. The CDC estimates that nearly 80 million people—about one in four—are currently infected in the United States,” Martin said. “About 50 percent of all new infections occur in young people aged 15 to 24. The CDC reports that in the United States each year, there are about 17,500 women and 9,300 men affected by HPV-related cancers.”
There are many types or strains of HPV, some that are “low risk” leading to genital warts and some that are “high risk” types that can cause cancer. These include cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancer in females, penile cancer in males, and anal and oropharyngeal cancer in both males and females.
Since HPV affects both men and women, it is essential that both girls and boys receive the vaccine.
“The most common types of HPV are covered in the vaccine, so getting vaccinated is very important for all children because it protects against HPV-related cancers,” Martin said.
When should preteens receive the vaccine?
Boys and girls ages 11-12 years should receive the HPV vaccine, but the vaccination series can be started as early as 9 years of age. The vaccine is approved for males and females up to age 26, but has been shown to have better protection if given to younger preteens.
How many shots are needed?
Two shots of HPV vaccine six to 12 months apart are recommended for children ages 11-12. If your child is older than 15 years, three shots will need to be given over six months.
Many parents seem to be unclear about the rationale for the timing of the HPV vaccinations.
“The biggest misunderstanding is in regard to the timing of the vaccinations,” Martin said. “The early timing of the HPV vaccine is not because we assume children or teens are going to become sexually active at a young age. Rather, it is provided because the vaccine has been shown to have better protection in younger preteens before they become sexually active and are exposed to the infection.
“I have also heard many parents question if a vaccine to prevent a sexually transmitted infection is going to make their child more likely to have sex,” Martin said. “In fact, a 2012 study looked at girls who received the vaccination at the recommended age and found no increase in sexual activity as measured by incidence of pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections or visits for contraceptives for up to three years after vaccination.”
A common misconception is that vaccines are unsafe and cause other diseases or illnesses.
“Vaccines are studied extensively and must meet rigorous safety and quality standards before they are made widely available. Vaccines are safe, and I strongly recommend that all children receive routine vaccines, including the HPV vaccine,” Martin said.
Increased utilization of this vaccine is strongly encouraged by the medical community.
“I encourage parents to make both appointments for the HPV vaccination (or all three depending on your child’s age) at the same time so you don’t forget,” Martin said. “Start talking with your pediatrician early to get all of your questions answered regarding the vaccination. If you still have questions or concerns, I recommend that you look at a reputable website like the CDC’s HPV page for more information.”
To find out more about HPV and the recommended vaccinations, please visit the CDC HPV site at www.cdc.gov/hpv/index.html.