Q: Can we skip the HPV vaccine?
A: Many parents find HPV vaccination to be a particularly challenging topic as they struggle with the idea of thier child receiving an injection related to sexual health.
But the vaccine — which is given during elementary school — is recommended to prevent multiple types of cancer in adulthood for both males and females.
What is HPV?
The human papillomavirus (HPV for short) is the most common sexually transmitted infection.
It’s so common, in fact, that ALMOST ALL people who are sexually active at any point in their lives will contract at least one of the many existing strains of HPV.
The majority of HPV infections don’t cause any physical effects and are cleared by the immune system. However, certain strains of HPV cause genital warts and — most worrisome — there are high-risk strains of HPV associated with the development of cancer.
The most common cancer that’s been linked to HPV is cancer of the cervix, but it can also cause anal, esophageal, vulvar and vaginal cancers.
Because HPV spreads by skin-to-skin contact, condoms can’t fully protect against transmission.
What is the vaccine?
The HPV vaccine is an immunization that protects against the strains of HPV known to be most commonly associated with genital warts and cancer. It’s FDA approved for both males and females ages 9 to 26.
The CDC recommends administration at age 11 to 12. For those age 14 and younger, the HPV vaccination includes a series of two shots given in a physician’s office six to 12 months apart. Those aged 15 and older require three shots given over a 6-month period.
It may seem unusual to consider the future sexual health of your fourth- or fifth-grader, but it’s truly crucial. The key to HPV vaccination is PREVENTION. It can’t treat an infection that’s already present. This means the best time to vaccinate is BEFORE onset of sexual activity of any kind (not just intercourse).
This allows for the development of immunity before potential exposure to HPV.
Although a male doesn’t have a cervix and thus can’t develop the most common type of cancer associated with HPV, vaccination is important to prevent genital warts, anal and esophageal cancers — and transmission to future partners.
Is it safe?
In recent years, many parents have become wary of vaccines. This is largely related to a study linking vaccines containing thimerosal (a preservative) with autism. This study was debunked due to the use of false data. And there’s still no proven association between vaccines and autism.
Vaccines undergo clinical trials prior to their FDA approval to ensure their safety. After approval, their use is monitored by the CDC and FDA so that any trends in negative side effects can be identified.
The HPV vaccination is generally well-tolerated. It doesn’t contain thimerosal, but it does contain other preservatives that prevent growth of germs and keep the vaccine safe for administration.
The most severe reaction that can occur with HPV vaccination is anaphylaxis caused by an allergy to any of the components of the vaccine. Such a reaction is rare. The most commonly experienced side effect of HPV vaccination is soreness at the injection site. Some patients may experience dizziness, nausea, flushing, headache or a slight fever. No long-term side effects have been identified.
What’s right for your family? Talk to your pediatrician. Even if you’re not quite ready to have your child vaccinated, you can start the conversation and ask further questions.
Learn more at cdc.gov/hpv.
Dr. Erin Stevens sees patients at the Edina location of Clinic Sofia, a local OBGYN clinic known for its personalized approach to women’s health care. She’s a member of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Learn more at clinicsofia.com.