The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most commonly transmitted STD in the US, causing cancer in roughly 17,600 women and 9,300 men every year. Luckily, the HPV vaccine helps protect kids against HPV-related cancers indefinitely. And yet a 2016 report published in Pediatrics found that about 11% of pediatricians and family physicians surveyed never discuss the HPV vaccine with parents during the child's 11- or 12- year wellness visit—often because they expect the parents to refuse it.
If your child hasn’t been vaccinated against HPV, listen up: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all children get the HPV vaccine starting at ages 11 or 12, regardless of sexual activity. We talked with Kari Harris, MD, a pediatrician at Wesley Pediatric Clinic and KU Wichita Pediatrics at the University of Kansas, to uncover why some parents might be reluctant about the vaccine—and why your child needs it.
Reason #1: My child isn't sexually active.
Reality: “Ideally, you want to get the vaccine before there is even the potential for the child to be exposed to the virus, because there is a high chance they could get it from their first sexual encounter,” says Dr. Harris. Plus, according to the AAP, children who receive the HPV vaccine by age 15 have a higher immunity against the virus than older kids.
Reason #2: The vaccine isn't required at my child's school.
Reality: Unlike other vaccines, the HPV vaccine isn’t required to attend public school. However, the CDC does recommend that kids get the vaccine at age 11 or 12, just like the Tdap and meningitis vaccines.
Reason #3: The HPV vaccine is for girls. My son doesn't need it.
Reality: The HPV virus was originally linked to cervical cancer, so the need for boys to get the vaccine may not have seemed so important at first. “Now we know that it causes many cancers that affect men as well, particularly oropharyngeal cancer," says Harris, who adds that the vaccination is equally important for boys and girls.
Reason #4: "I worry that the vaccine isn't safe."
Reality: All three HPV vaccines—Gardasil 9, Gardasil and Cervarix—are considered safe by the CDC. In fact, 86 million doses of the vaccine were given between 2006 and 2015. Of those, only a miniscule number of people reported a serious reaction—but whether or not the vaccine actually caused these reactions is unclear, according to the CDC
Bottom line: If your child hasn’t been vaccinated against HPV, don't wait for your doctor to bring it up. "Parents should just be proactive and ask their physician for it," says Harris. Worried that it’s too late? Young women can actually get vaccinated up until they are 26 years old, and young men can get the vaccine until they are 21.
Check out our "Childhood Vaccination Checklist" or visit the CDC’s website for more information.
See More from Dr. Harris:
What are some of the concerns parents have about the HPV vaccine?
Who should get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine?
When is the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine given?