What Parents Should Know About The HPV Vaccine

Published: February 07, 2024

By the time children turn 11 or 12, they probably have received many school-required vaccinations. Yet, there is one vaccine that, although not mandatory, all children should receive: the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

What is HPV?

HPV is a group of viruses that infect the cells on the surface of the skin or moist surfaces or inner lining of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and throat. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, and it causes significant morbidity and mortality in both women and men.

The good news: The HPV vaccine significantly reduces the incidence of cancer and genital warts in women and men. The vaccines are extremely effective, with data demonstrating greater than 99% efficacy when administered to women who have not been exposed to that particular type of HPV, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

You may be thinking, “Genital warts and cervical cancer are spread through sexual activity and my fifth grader isn’t sexually active,” “Cervical cancer is a woman’s illness so my son is not at risk,” or “Why should my children get a vaccine that their school does not require?”

The vaccine has nothing to do with promoting sexual promiscuity. Even though your child is not currently sexually active, he or she may become sexually active in a few more years, and nearly all males and females who are sexually active will become infected with HPV at some point in their lives. Even people who are in monogamous relationships can acquire or transmit HPV, often without knowing. HPV is not always transmitted sexually. Skin-to-skin contact can transmit it, too.

The HPV vaccines provide the best form of protection against the virus and the diseases it causes. To date, the HPV vaccine is our only tool to protect against HPV-associated illnesses, such as genital warts, or cancers of the mouth, back of the throat, base of the tongue and tonsils, anus/rectum, penis, vagina, or vulva.

What treatments are available for HPV?

No treatment exists for HPV. Moreover, HPV vaccine does not treat an existing HPV infection. Thus, it is especially critical for children to get vaccinated before they become sexually active, which is when it offers the most protection.

Not all HPV strains can cause cancer. In fact, in most people, an HPV infection goes away without medical treatment and does not cause any health problems. But certain kinds can last for many years and, if not treated, can cause abnormal tissue growth or cellular changes that result in certain types of warts or cancers.

Who should receive the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccines (there are three types) are safe and FDA-approved. It is given as a series of two or three doses, depending on age. Children as young as age 9, but no older than age 15 — preferably ages 11 or 12 — receive two doses, six months apart. Those ages 15 through 26 receive three doses. Some adults between the ages of 27 and 45 who are not already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after talking with their doctor about their risk of new HPV infections.

The vaccine causes no side effects greater than localized discomfort, redness or swelling around the injection site, or possible fainting. It does not interact negatively with other vaccines, such as those for COVID-19 or flu. Children who are severely allergic to yeast should not receive it.

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