What Should Parents Know About the HPV Vaccine?

HPV vaccination is safe for children, prevents HPV cancers

An African-American youth receives the HPV vaccine.

HPV vaccination is safe for children, prevents HPV cancers

If you are the parent of a preteen, you may have heard about HPV and may be deciding if your child needs the HPV vaccine. 

HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. It affects both males and females — mostly in their teens and early 20s.

HPV is spread through intimate skin to skin contact – including vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the virus – even if they don’t have signs or symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

HPV vaccination is recommended at ages 11 and 12 but can be given starting at age 9, according to the CDC.

“The HPV vaccine is an important vaccine for both girls and boys,” says Erik Hogen, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic in Rancho Bernardo. “It is an extremely effective way to protect our younger generation against many types of HPV-related cancers.”

Why is HPV vaccination at an early age important?

HPV vaccine is recommended based on age, not sexual experience.

“There is no reason to wait to vaccinate until they reach puberty or start having sex,” Dr. Hogen says. “Preteens should receive the immunization, so they are protected before ever being exposed to the virus,” Dr. Hogen says. “The vaccine also produces a more robust immune response during these younger years.”

There is no evidence that giving the vaccine encourages early sexual activity, he says. And even if someone has already had sex, they should still get HPV vaccine.

How common is HPV?

More than 42 million are currently infected with HPV virus that causes disease. About 13 million Americans become infected each year, including many young people.

Most HPV infections go away on their own within two years. However, some strains persist and are the cause of various cancers in adulthood, including cervical cancer and cancers of the anus, vagina and penis. Up to 70 percent of cancers of the head and neck are HPV-related.

About 36,000 women and men are diagnosed with HPV-related cancers each year. More than 90 percent of these cancers — which mainly affect women — could be prevented through vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

How often should HPV vaccine be given?

HPV vaccines are recommended for children between the ages of 9 to 12, according to the CDC. Two doses are recommended, 6 to 12 months apart, for children 9 to 14.

Three doses should be given if between the ages of 15 to 26, or if immunocompromised.

HPV vaccination is generally not recommended after 26 since most people in this age range have been exposed to HPV already. However, adults 27 to 46 who were not adequately vaccinated may benefit from vaccination.

How effective is the HPV vaccine?

HPV vaccines are safe and effective.

HPV infections and cervical precancers have dropped significantly since 2006 when HPV vaccines were first used in the United States.

Infections with HPV types that cause most HPV cancers and genital warts have dropped 88 percent among teen girls and 81 percent among young adult women, according to the CDC.

“Its efficacy is highest when the majority of the population is vaccinated prior to HPV exposure – which is why it is so important to vaccinate both boys and girls at an early age,” says Jo Marie Janco, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Scripps Clinic.

Oncologists can diagnose patients with cervical cancer at all stages using screening and detection programs. The HPV vaccine can prevent HPV-related cancers, however, “in contrast to most of our cancer screening and prevention strategies, which entail detecting pre-cancer or cancer that has already developed,” Dr. Janco says.

“I would strongly encourage parents to take advantage of this intervention that can prevent cancer for their children,” she says.

Safety first

Many people who get the HPV vaccine have no side effects at all. Some report mild side effects, including pain, fever, dizziness, headache, nausea, muscle or joint pain. Severe allergic reactions are rare.

“Years of testing are required by law to ensure the safety of vaccines before they are made available in the US,” says Dr. Hogen. “Currently the US has the safest, most effective vaccine supply in history.”