Kids & the HPV Vaccine: Everything Moms Need to Know

 teen girl getting shot

If your kids are tweens or teens, your pediatrician may have suggested it's time for the HPV vaccine. This shot, which protects against a sexually transmitted disease called the human papillomavirus, is recommended for all kids between the ages of 11 and 21 (for boys) and 26 (for girls). Which may have you thinking, Yikes, my kid isn't having sex at 11! Do I really have to think about this right now?

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The answer: yep! Here's why: according to the Center for Disease Control, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States; nearly all sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. And since the virus rarely causes symptoms, most people have no idea they have it and are passing it to others when they hop into bed and get busy.

While most people with HPV never develop health issues -- 9 out of 10 infections disappear by themselves within two years -- an unlucky few will suffer an array of problems, some of which can be fatal.

"Human papillomavirus is a known cause of cancer, including cervical cancer -- the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women -- as well as penile and anal cancer," says Hannah Chow-Johnson, MD, a pediatrician at Loyola University Health System. Even oral sex with an HPV infected person can lead to mouth and throat cancer. The virus can also cause genital warts -- which, while not fatal, are definitely something your kid will want to avoid!

Sure, it may seem strange to think of your 11-year-old having sex. "Since HPV is an STI, parents and providers may feel uncomfortable facing the preteen’s emerging sexuality," says Gale Burstein, MD, a pediatrician at Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo. "But this is not to say that your preteen is ready to have sex. In fact, it’s just the opposite."

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Getting the vaccine long before sex enters the picture is essential for a few reasons. One, the vaccine offers the best protection when teens and tweens have had time to build up an immune response before they begin sexual activity. "The immune response to this vaccine is better in preteens, and this could mean better protection for your child," Dr. Burstein points out.

The second reason is a bit more obvious: once your child has had sex and has been exposed to HPV, it's too late. "If the HPV vaccine is given before any exposure, the protection rate is almost 93 percent," says Dr. Chow-Johnson. "After exposure, the vaccine doesn’t treat pre-existing viruses." That said, even if your child has been exposed to HPV, the vaccine will help ward off future exposures, so it's still worth getting later on, too.

But what about concerns that by having your kids vaccinated, you're subtly giving them permission to have sex as soon as they leave the doctor's office? "Some think that protecting teens from HPV will encourage them to engage in riskier sexual behavior earlier," says Dr. Burstein. "But that's a misconception, shown in medical literature to be false. When teens consider starting to engage in sexual activity, they consider love, relationships, sometimes pregnancy, but STIs are usually not considered in the decision."

As for any rumors you've heard that the HPV vaccine comes with serious side effects -- or that it can even cause cancer -- here are a few facts to lay your fears to rest: the vaccine is FDA-approved, and more than 97 million doses have been administered globally, with all adverse reactions thoroughly investigated. While all vaccines come with side effects, those of the HPV vaccine are no worse than any other.

"Several mild to moderate problems are known to occur with the HPV vaccine, including pain, redness or swelling, mild fever, headache, and brief fainting spells," says Dr. Burstein, who adds that sitting or lying down for about 15 minutes after a vaccination can help prevent fainting and injuries caused by falls. "But these side effects don't last long and resolve on their own. Life-threatening reactions from vaccines are very, very rare. And if they do occur, it would be within a few minutes to a few hours after the vaccination." Beyond that, your kid is completely in the clear. 

For more information, check out the National Coalition for Sexual Health’s new guide on preventive sexual health services, which outlines what's now available at low to no cost via the Affordable Care Act.

How do you feel about giving your kid the HPV vaccine?

 

Image via Brian Chase/shutterstock

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