The HPV Vaccine Is Forcing Me to Have a Talk With My Son I'm Not Ready For

HPV vaccine for boysWhen I took my 13-year-old son for this annual physical in January he asked on the way there if he'd be getting any shots at this visit. "No," I told him, fairly confidently. But after the requisite height, weight, and blood pressure measurements were complete, our pediatrician brought up the vaccine she'd like to see him get: Gardasil, to prevent Human Papillomavirus or HPV.

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Our doctor explained that typically parents think of the vaccine as "just for girls," as it's used to protect them from vaginal and cervical cancers. But, she pointed out, if boys are "spreading" these diseases, they should be vaccinated as well. Now, a new study suggests that the vaccine could help prevent throat cancers in men as well. 

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According to the Centers for Disease Control, children -- even boys -- as young as 11 should receive the vaccine along with their other routine vaccinations. But some parents worry that getting their pre-teens the shot almost encourages them to become sexually active at an earlier age.

I'll be honest, I hadn't really given this whole issue much thought prior to that visit. As naive as it may sound, in many ways, it seems like I was just taking my now-teen to storytime at the library and bribing him with crackers to get back in his stroller. Sure, we've had "the talk" and he knows all the pertinent "facts of life," but we hadn't really delved into the ugly world of sexually transmitted diseases yet. And I wasn't sure I was ready to do that on the fly in this doctor's office either. 

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Ironically, our pediatrician didn't seem all that comfortable with the subject matter herself. "You don't have to decide today but you might want to think about it before he, you know, ah haha," she said, sounding a bit like Woody Woodpecker and raising her eyebrows indicating that I should just read between the lines. 

All this had me thinking, Wow, things sure were simpler when I only had to explain whooping cough and polio! When your child is little and receives a vaccination, it can be a relatively quick and painless chat about keeping them safe from diseases. But this -- woah, Nelly! My son, sitting there, would surely have questions like, "What's that for??" if he'd be given the shot that afternoon -- especially after I'd told him he most likely wouldn't be getting one. 

Starting a conversation about oral sex and genital warts definitely wasn't on my agenda for that afternoon. Still, ignorance is not bliss when it comes to children, sexual activity, and vaccinations, so clearly I had some research to do. 

What I learned is that with more than 100 strains, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S., infecting 14 million people annually. Most of the strains are not considered harmful and go away within two years. (Still, two years with genital warts is no picnic, I'd imagine!).

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My husband and I are still looking into this vaccine, its effectiveness, and possible side effects. I also plan to talk to other moms of boys -- and girls -- to see what they've decided and hope to make a more informed decision. We're fortunate in that while our son isn't still in the "Girls?? Ewww, gross!" stage, he's not dating either. Though we know that could change at any moment.

As we decide what to do about the vaccine, we're also thinking about the conversation we now realize we have to have with our son. At 13, or even younger, there's no way he's not going to want answers, especially with so much controversy surrounding vaccinations today. We owe it to our kids to have honest, frank, and age-appropriate conversations about diseases -- no matter how awkward it might be for all of us. 

Will you get the HPV vaccine for your son? 


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