As parents, we know it’s impossible to protect our kids from everything. You may not be prepared to think about your “baby” as an adult, but there’s a lot you can do to keep your kid healthy and safe—even years down the road. Case in point: If you haven’t had your teen vaccinated for human papillomavirus (HPV) yet, it’s time to talk to your pediatrician.
“HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection,” says David P. Warshal, MD, director at the Gynecologic Cancer Center at MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper. “It can be transmitted even without sexual intercourse.” Here’s what else you need to know about HPV and the Gardasil 9 vaccine:
HPV IS VERY COMMON
Most adults have HPV at some point in their lifetime. It can be passed even when the infected person has no symptoms. Intimate skin-to-skin contact and oral sex also spread the virus, and condoms don’t provide 100 percent protection because they only cover a small amount of skin. “Most of the time, the immune system suppresses the virus. But about 10 percent of people are not able to do so, which puts them at risk for HPV-related cancers,” says Warshal. Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict which people with HPV will develop cancer.
ANYONE CAN GET CANCER FROM HPV
There are more than 200 subtypes of HPV, and some cause cancer and genital warts, says Warshal. The numbers are startling: HPV is responsible for more than 90 percent of anal and cervical cancers, about 70 percent of vaginal and vulvar cancers, 60 percent of penile cancers and about 60 percent of throat and mouth cancers. Nearly 35,000 cases of HPV-related cancers are diagnosed every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
THE VACCINE IS AN EFFECTIVE FORM OF PREVENTION
The vaccine prevents more than 90 percent of HPV cancers, says the CDC, plus genital warts. Although genital warts don’t lead to cancer, the vaccine also protects against them. “When it was first introduced, the vaccine was aimed toward teen girls and preventing sexually transmitted infections,” says Puthenmadam Radhakrishnan, MD, a pediatrician at Bellevue Pediatrics in Ewing. “But with more research, we’ve seen it’s actually effective for protecting both girls and boys from HPV cancers.”
THE VACCINE HAS A GOOD SAFETY RECORD
With more than 300 million injections given worldwide since being introduced, “there’s never been a study that indicates any significant side effects,” says Warshal. Studies also show that protection lasts 10 years, so no booster is currently recommended (though research is ongoing).
Like any vaccine, it’s best to have your child immunized before he or she is exposed to the virus. Your kid can start as early as age 9, and will need two doses six to 12 months apart if he or she gets them by age 12. “In my practice, we have the conversation and suggest vaccination at age 9, when kids are required to get other immunizations anyhow, such as Tdap and meningitis,” says Radhakrishnan. “The earlier it’s given, the better the immunity.” Kids who start the vaccine after age 15 need three shots over the course of six months.
IT DOESN’T PROMOTE RISKY SEXUAL BEHAVIOR
An early concern was that the vaccine would encourage preteens and teens to engage in sexual activity, but research hasn’t shown that. In fact, it’s actually an opportunity to have “the talk” (if you haven’t already), when you can give them the facts and share your feelings and family’s values.
THE SHOT IS A BIT UNCOMFORTABLE
Like any vaccine, your child may complain about pain, redness and swelling at the injection site. Placing an ice pack on the area for a half-hour can help. Some kids do get a little light-headed, so they should sit or lie down when getting the shot and for 15 minutes after inoculation. If your pediatrician hasn’t already mentioned the vaccine, make sure to discuss it at your next visit, suggests Radhakrishnan.
—Arricca Elin SanSone is a New York-based health and lifestyle writer.