Ok, so I have some good news and I have some bad news about human papillomavirus (HPV). How about the bad news first? HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. It is estimated that > 50% of adults become infected in their lifetime. It is a silent virus that sits in waiting for years, with no symptoms while managing to cause 15,000 cases of cancer in females and 7000 cancers in males annually in the United States. HPV types 16 and 18 causes 70% of cervical, 87% of anal, 60% of oropharyngeal, and 31% of penile cancers. HPV types 6 and 11 cause 90% of genital warts.
But here is the good news…..there is a vaccine to help prevent cancer! Gardasil was first licensed for use in females ages 9-26 in 2006 and for males ages 9-26 in 2009. It protects against 4 types of HPV, 16 and 18, the cancer-causing types, and 6 and 11, the wart causing types. The series of three shots typically begins at the ages of 11 or 12. You may be wondering why a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease is given so early. Well, studies have shown that antibody responses are at least twice as high in the children ages 9-15 compared to 16-26. Also, the vaccine can only protect against these viruses if a person has not been previously exposed.
There is some more bad news, however. HPV vaccination is lagging behind other vaccines given to adolescents, with only 32% of females 13-17 completing the 3-dose series. But we can all improve these numbers by taking our children in to be vaccinated. Studies have shown that concerns for necessity, safety, and long-term effects are common reasons parents hesitate to vaccinate “My kid isn’t sexually active so they don’t need this vaccine”. But that is actually a reason TO vaccinate. Adolescents are not going to inform their parents when they plan on becoming sexually active and unfortunately not all sex is consensual so vaccinating them prior to any exposure is best.
In regards to safety, the vaccine has been found to be incredibly well tolerated. The most common side effects include pain and swelling at the injection site. It has also been found to cause dizziness or fainting shortly after, so physicians may ask your child to lie down for 15 minutes after receiving the shot. Since the initiation of this vaccine there has been no discernable, vaccine-specific adverse effects detected, with the exception of rare anaphylaxis to vaccine components.
And finally, a question parents have often is will this vaccine make my child promiscuous? An article in the latest edition of Pediatrics has shown that HPV vaccination does not lead to changes in sexual behaviors among adolescents and it does not change their perceptions of risk either.
My girls are still young, but when they are old enough they will definitely be receiving this vaccine. It helps prevent cancer! Amazing!