Have Teens Vaccinate Against HPV and Cancer

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

As the bus pulled up to the bus stop, the mother quickly kissed her daughter as she headed out the door. It was hard to believe she was in 5th grade and already talking about how some of her friends had crushes on boys. It would not be long now before her daughter would be among them.

As the mother let her mind drift, she realized that at some point she was going to have to have the “sex talk” with her daughter. As part of that talk, she would also have to talk about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). One of the most prevalent STDs is the human papillomavirus (HPV), though it is often not the first STD that comes to mind for most adults.

There are 40 different types of HPV that cause genital infections. Most are not serious or cause any symptoms. However, there are some types that can cause serious problems such as genital warts, cervical cancer, anal cancer, and head and neck cancer. Adolescents who acquire HPV usually get it within the first couple of years of sexual activity. For many years, nothing could be done to prevent the spread of HPV besides abstinence and using condoms during sexual activity.

About a decade ago, a vaccine became available to help prevent HPV infection. It required adolescents to receive a series of three shots before they became sexually active. The vaccine was recommended to be given to pre-teens who were 11 to 12 years old. This age has been recommended as pre-teens have a stronger immune response to the vaccine and are unlikely to have been exposed to the virus. While much of the discussion revolved around girls receiving the vaccine due to its prevention of cervical cancer, boys also benefit from it by preventing anal, head, and neck cancers.

There was some controversy about the vaccine, as parents became concerned about giving their children a vaccine for an STD when they were not sexually active. As a result, only 42% of girls and 22% of boys received the vaccine. Even with these relatively low numbers, recent research has indicated that the incident of HPV in adolescent girls has dropped by 64% since the introduction of the vaccine.

The recent indications of the HPV vaccine’s effectiveness makes a strong case for parents to have their pre-teens immunized. Some parents reluctance to have their pre-teens get the HPV vaccine is that they worry it will send the message that they approve of them having sex. This does not appear to occur as a research study examined this concern and found the sexual activity rate does not differ between those who have and have not received the vaccine.

If parents are concerned about sending the wrong message, they should emphasize how the vaccine is just another way to protect their pre-teens from a possibly harmful virus. Parents should also consider having the “sex talk” so their pre-teens know more about sex and their parents beliefs and values about the issue.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on March 4, 2016.

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