“Cancer” has to be one of the most hated words in the English language. Nobody likes it. Nobody wants to see their friends, family, or other loved ones stricken by this non-discriminating and potentially fatal illness. And to imagine our children with cancer is terrifying. To that end, we cover their little bodies in sunscreen to prevent skin cancer. We avoid using plastic containers that might leach cancer-causing chemicals into their food. We take them to regular checkups and try to limit their exposure to radiation from X-rays, CT scans, and other imaging tests, all in the hope of protecting them from an eventual cancer diagnosis.
If only there were a vaccine that could magically protect our sons and daughters from developing certain types of cancer. Oh wait. There is one. It’s called the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine, and it has the amazing power to effectively protect your children against cervical cancer and several other cancers caused by the HPV virus, including anal and throat cancer. Unfortunately, many parents are refusing this vaccine for their children—either because they view it as unsafe or because they see it as a license for teens (or preteens) to engage in sexual activity, since the strains of HPV covered by the vaccine are sexually transmitted. Here’s why that thinking is not only inaccurate but potentially dangerous to your child.
HPV’s link to cancer
Nearly all sexually active men and women will get infected with HPV at some point. While our immune systems generally can rid the body of the virus—often so easily that we never even know we had the infection—in some cases the system is unable to defend against HPV, and the infection lingers in the body. When that happens, it can turn normal cells into abnormal ones and then cause cancer.
Although only some HPV viruses (there are at least 150 types, according to the CDC) cause cancer, nearly every form of cervical cancer is caused by HPV infection. And cervical cancer is serious. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 12,900 new cases and 4,100 deaths fromcervical cancer in 2015 in the United States. HPV can also cause other cancers, including anal, penile, vaginal, and oropharyngeal (throat) cancer. It’s also the cause of genital warts in both men and women. And a person need not have a myriad of sexual partners to get the virus: Even a man or woman who has a single sexual partner in his or her lifetime can become infected.
That’s where the vaccine comes into play. Three HPV vaccines are currently available: Cervarix, Gardasil, and Gardasil 9, all given as a series of three shots. All of the vaccines are effective at preventing the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. Gardasil and Gardisil 9 also protect against anal cancer in both men and women, as well as genital warts. What age is optimal to get the vaccine? Although they’re approved for use up to age 21 in most men and age 26 in women—and anyone who’s unvaccinated up to those ages should get the vaccine—ideally it should be given much earlier, before a person becomes sexually active. For that reason, the CDC recommends that both boys and girls get vaccinated between ages 11 and 12, a recommendation that’s proven a stumbling block for some parents. Despite the realities of HPV infection, many moms and dads simply don’t want STDs and their 11- or 12-year-old child together in the same thought. They might tell themselves they're too young to talk about preventing a sexually transmitted virus.But this isn't true.
The reason the vaccine is recommended for pre-teens isbecause it is more effective when given to this age group than when given to older adolescents, who have a greater chance of already having been sexually active. Remember, the vaccine protects against future exposure to HPV. Giving it at a younger age simply increases the chance that when a person does become sexually active (which could be many moons from the ripe age of 11) they will be protected against this very common infection.
Let’s be clear about something else, too: The risk of your teenager becoming infected with HPV is vastly higher than any risk associated with the vaccine itself. According to the World Health Organization, as of February 2014 there have been over 175 million doses of HPV vaccine distributed throughout the world and zero association between the vaccine and serious adverse events. Despite scary stories circulating on social media, there is no evidence of an increased incidence of autoimmune or neurological disorders among children and teens who’ve been vaccinated. And as with all vaccines used in the United States, the HPV vaccines have undergone rigorous pre-licensing safety studies and continue to be monitored for safety.
Bottom line: The HPV vaccines are safe. They are extremely effective. And they may save your child from certain types of cancer. Based on all of this, parents should not only feel comfortable with the vaccine, but should insist on it.