If there’s something we can do to prevent our children from getting cancer, we should do it. Plain and simple. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that youth be vaccinated against Human Papilloma Virus, starting as young as 9 years old.
Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV, is the leading cause of cervical cancer. It can cause other cancers as well in both men and women, and is the cause of genital warts. The vaccine, which is given as three doses over 6 months, is very effective. And yet, some parents don’t want me to give the vaccine, especially when their children aren’t teenagers yet.
Here’s what seem to be the two biggest reasons:
They worry the HPV vaccine is not safe.
There are lots of rumors about problems with the HPV vaccine. While it’s certainly true that side effects are possible from any medical treatment, including vaccines, the HPV vaccine has been extensively studied, and is felt to be safe. The most common side effects are dizziness, nausea, fever, headache or pain where it is injected. Sometimes people faint after getting the vaccine, but this can be prevented by sitting or lying down for a few minutes after getting it.
It’s of course important that parents ask questions and learn about vaccines and other medical treatments before giving them to their child. But it’s particularly important that the information be from a good source. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has lots of information about side effects and ongoing efforts to ensure the safety of this vaccine and others.
They associate the vaccine with sex, and think their children are too young to get it.
It’s true HPV is a sexually transmitted infection. In fact, it’s the most common sexually transmitted infection. But giving the vaccine doesn’t mean you are giving your child permission to have sex — and getting the vaccine doesn’t make teens more likely to have sex.
It’s uncomfortable for many parents to think about their children as sexual beings — but they are. According to the Youth Risk Behavioral Survey, by senior year in high school, about two-thirds of teens have had sex, and may start earlier than that. For the HPV vaccine to be most effective, it’s best to give it before youth start having sex. As much as parents would like to think that A. their teens won’t have sex until they are much older and B. they will know when their teen has had sex, the truth is it doesn’t always work out that way.
That’s part of the reason why the AAP recommends starting early with the vaccine. That way, it’s done and out of the way — and at whatever point in life your child has sex, he or she will be protected against the cancers caused by HPV. As a side benefit, women who test negative for HPV can have longer intervals between Pap smears. Given that pelvic exams and Pap smears are hardly fun, this is a good thing.
The other part of the reason to give it early is that once children become adolescents, they often go to the doctor less often — and don’t always show up for follow-up appointments. For a vaccine that requires three doses, this can be a real problem. But if we start early, when youth are coming to the doctor more often and when parents are more involved, the chances of getting those three doses goes way up.
If you have questions or worries about the HPV vaccine, talk to your doctor. Don’t let your worries get in the way of preventing cancer. We should never miss the chance to prevent cancer in our children.
Learn more about primary care at Boston Children’s.
About the blogger: Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, a senior editor for Harvard Health Publications and an official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.