Doctor G, why should I give my daughter the HPV vaccine? I’ve read a lot about this and it seems like, if I do my job as a parent and teach her to wait for sexual intimacy and how to protect herself, this shot is unnecessary.
Jen, in CO
Jen, this is a great question! You sound like you’ve made yourself pretty knowledgeable already, but let me answer some common questions about the virus and the vaccine. I hope that it will make clear to you why giving this vaccine is great in addition to all the excellent education you are giving your daughter about how to protect herself!
What is HPV? Human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection (used to be called STDs or even VD if you’re old like me!) in the United States. There are many strains of this virus. Some cause genital warts, some cause few symptoms but change the individual cells they contact until cancer begins. That’s right, this virus is the cause of cervical cancer, as well as a cause of penile and anal cancer. There is even some evidence that it leads to some cases of throat cancer.
How common is cervical cancer? It is the second leading cause of cancer death in women around the world.
How is HPV transmitted? Contact. The surface cells with the virus (of the vagina, the penis, the anus or the throat) contact someone else’s vagina, penis, anus or rectum.
Isn’t it obvious if a guy (or girl) has HPV? Unfortunately no! Infected cells often show NO symptoms (including warts) and yet pass on the infection.
How many people really have this? About 20 million Americans are currently infected, and that is rising at a rate of about 6 million people a year.
What’s so great about the vaccine? The reason doctors are such proponents of this vaccine is that it is the only immunization that prevents cancer! The vaccine protects against the 4 types of HPV virus that cause 70% of associated cancer and 90% of genital warts.
OK, what about vaccine side effects? The most common side effect is the same as for all shots – they hurt. The area where the shot is received may be red for a couple of days. One out of every 30 or so teens experience itching at the site. About one in 10 people get a mild fever, about one in 60 get a moderate fever – neither are dangerous, and they resolve without intervention after a day or two.
How safe is it really? It is really safe. So far over 50 million doses of the vaccine have been given in the US and there have not been any serious adverse events causally linked to the vaccine.
Why do they recommend starting it at age 11? This vaccine is recommended for all women up to the age of 26, even if they’re already sexually active or even had positive HPV testing since there are so many strains of the virus. However, we know it is most effective when the shot comes before exposure to the virus. This does not mean we expect your 13 year old to be sexually active! Giving this shot at or before puberty seems to help with it’s effectiveness through the young adult years. Also, as awful as it is to contemplate… if a girl is sexually assaulted her, cancer as an outcome is one horror we can prevent.
What am I supposed to tell my daughter about what this shot is for??! This might be the most frequently asked question in my office! If you have not begun to talk to your daughter about sexual intimacy, you can give her an honest but brief answer, “This vaccine prevents certain types of cancer.” If you have explained a lot of the basics and are worried she will think this is a free pass to unprotected intercourse, then be clear, “This is a way to protect against only one of the many infections that can be passed during sex.”
Are you going to give this to your kids? Yes, and I have all boys. But that is a post for another day.