As a parent, you do everything you can to help your children stay safe and healthy – now and in the future. January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month – a good time to learn more about the HPV vaccine and why vaccinating our children – both girls and boys - is critical in the fight against cervical cancer.
There's been a lot of misinformation about the HPV vaccine, so let’s start with the facts: HPV is the human papillomavirus, some strains of which can be transmitted through sexual activity. Some strains of HPV – one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) – can lead to cervical cancer and genital warts.
The FDA has approved two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, to safely and effectively prevent infection from two strains of HPV that cause 70 percent of cervical cancer cases – Gardasil also prevents infection of two strains that cause 90 percent of genital warts.
Every year, approximately 12,000 American women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and about 4,000 die from the disease. The HPV vaccine is a major breakthrough in the fight to prevent cervical cancer and should be considered a routine part of our children’s health care.
Given the emphasis on cervical cancer prevention, you may wonder why the HPV vaccine is also recommended for boys. The reasons are twofold – the vaccine can prevent genital warts and rare cancers of the penis and anus in men. And even though men cannot get cervical cancer, they can carry HPV and spread it to their partners. Vaccinating boys against HPV helps protect their future partners from developing cervical cancer.
The Centers for Disease Control, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Academy of Family Physicians recommend that boys and girls get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12 – long before they become sexually active – to maximize protection. It can also be administered to anyone between the ages of 9-26, regardless of sexual activity.
I know that agreeing to have your child receive the HPV vaccine is partly about accepting that they will one day be sexually active. For many parents, that mere thought is terrifying. Rest assured, the HPV vaccine is not a permission slip to have sex now. In fact, a recent study published in Pediatrics debunked the myth that the vaccine encourages or condones earlier sex. But having your child vaccinated can bring up difficult conversations about sex.
Talking about the HPV vaccine is the perfect opportunity to embrace conversations about sexual values and health (rather than avoid them). Organizations like Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts offer programs to help parents and caregivers become comfortable having these conversations with their children.