There has been a lot of talk about vaccines lately — and for good reason. Vaccination is one of the most successful public health interventions of the last century.
Vaccines reduce disease spread, and prevent complications and deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that along with clean water, vaccines are one of the two public health interventions that have had the greatest impact on the world's health.
While COVID-19 vaccines have received the most attention over the past year, parents are encouraged to also keep the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine at the top of their children’s must-have vaccine list. HPV is a common virus that infects males and females, and is transmissible through direct skin-to-skin contact.
HPV causes cancer
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 13 million people, including teens, become infected with HPV each year. HPV infection can cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers in women; penile cancer in men; and anal cancer, cancer of the back of the throat, and genital warts in both men and women. The vaccine is given to children long before they might be exposed to the cancer-causing virus.
“HPV vaccination is cancer prevention,” says Dr. Jershonda Hartsfield, a board-certified pediatrician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “The HPV vaccine is recommended to help reduce children’s risk of cancer, and studies show that they are best protected before they have ever been exposed to the HPV infection.”
When kids should be vaccinated
The CDC recommends that all kids — both girls and boys — who are at least 9 years old should get two shots of HPV vaccine 6 to 12 months apart. If a child receives both shots less than 5 months apart, they will need a third dose for best protection. Additionally, children who start the vaccine series on or after their 15th birthday need three shots given over 6 months.
If your child is nearing age 9 or older, Dr. Hartsfield recommends you contact their doctor to get them vaccinated as soon as possible. The CDC recommends HPV vaccination for everyone through age 26, if they were not adequately vaccinated already.
“The opportunity to protect your young child is now,” Dr. Hartsfield says. “And children who receive the vaccine prior to their 15th birthday can enjoy the additional benefit of fewer injections.”
Addressing parents’ concerns
Dr. Hartsfield acknowledges that some parents have expressed concern that having their child vaccinated against HPV might mean they are more likely to become sexually active or to assume that receiving the vaccination implies their parents encourage intimate activity. However, she and other experts emphasize that studies show that getting the HPV vaccine doesn’t make kids more likely to start having sex.
What’s more, while parents have also shared fears that the vaccine could affect their child’s fertility, the opposite is actually true. There is no evidence available to suggest that getting the HPV vaccine will have an effect on future fertility. However, women who develop an HPV pre-cancer or cancer could require treatment that would limit their ability to have children. The HPV vaccine provides safe, effective and long-term protection against such cancers.
“It is reasonable for people to have questions, and I encourage parents to ask them, discuss them with their child’s doctor and research their specific concerns,” Dr. Hartsfield says. “The research shows that the HPV vaccine is safe.”
What to expect
When it comes to concerns about possible vaccine side effects, parents can rest easy in knowing that common side effects from the HPV vaccine are mild and resolve quickly. These include:
- Pain, redness or swelling in the arm where the shot was given
- Dizziness or fainting
- Headache or fatigue
- Muscle or joint pain
“The HPV vaccine has gone through rigorous trials and is safe and effective in reducing cancerous and pre-cancerous lesions in male and female patients,” Dr. Hartsfield says. “Take this opportunity to protect your child now.”