Since it became available in 2006, the vaccine against the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) has had few passionate advocates outside medical circles, and no wonder: The vaccine was, after all, new, and therefore didn’t have an overwhelming volume of efficacy data behind it. Moreover, with so many parents still reluctant to immunize their children against diseases like measles, it would stand to reason that a good number might be skeptical of a vaccine that’s meant to protect 11 and 12-year-olds—some pre-pubescent, most sexually inactive— against an STD. “I realize it’s probably more about my squeamishness with the thought of (my daughter) becoming sexually active than the vaccination itself,” one mother told a reporter in a 2011 npr.org investigation. “It’s not the science. I think it’s my own issues around her developing sexually.”
And yet, some facts: Studies done before widespread HPV vaccination show that by the time they’re 15, nearly 10 percent of American girls are infected with HPV. By age 17, that has doubled to nearly 20 percent. And while not everyone who contracts HPV becomes very sick from it, 11,000 women in the U.S. do get HPV-related cervical cancer each year, and a growing number of men are developing head and throat cancers related to the virus. Anyone who has followed the heartbreaking story of country star Joey Feek, who’s battling end-stage cervical cancer, knows how devastating HPV-related cancer can be.
But for those who remain skeptical, some recent data shows that the HPV vaccine is not only safe, but working—and extremely well. Between 2011 and 2014, an array of large, controlled studies showed no association between the vaccine and serious side effects or adverse health problems. And just this week, data from a large, CDC-led study revealed that HPV infection rates among girls 14 to 19 years of age were 63% lower from 2009 to 2012 than before the vaccine was introduced in 2006; for women in their 20s, rates have dropped by a third.
So, even though none of us like to think about our kids becoming sexually active, much less contracting a terrible cancer, it’s time all of us with pre-teens start talking to pediatricians about the HPV vaccine. All boys and girls should get it, starting with a first dose at 11 or 12 years old, when they also get a meningitis shot and a Tdap booster. (They should get a second shot one month later, and then a third one after 6 months). Older teens who missed getting the vaccine earlier should try to get their shots by age 21 (men) and age 26 (women). According to the most recent U.S. statistics, four out of ten teen girls and six out of ten adolescent boys have not started the HPV vaccine series, and are vulnerable to cancers caused by HPV infections.
Think of it as not just an investment in the health of your own kids, but their future loved ones, too.
For more information, check out this HPV vaccine information page at the website for the Centers for Disease Control.