Why Parents and Doctors Aren’t Talking About the HPV Vaccine

Squeamishness about sexual activity shouldn’t dissuade parents from having their kids vaccinated.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most commonly transmitted STD in the U.S., causing cancer in roughly 20,700 women and 14,100 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 percent 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: It's recommended that all boys and girls receive the two-dose vaccine between the ages of 9 and 12, regardless of sexual activity, with the first dose coming at age 9 or 10. 

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.
“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 American Academy of Pediatrics, 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.
Unlike other vaccines, the HPV vaccine isn’t required to attend public school. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does recommend that kids get the vaccine by age 11 or 12, just like the Tdap and meningitis vaccines. Many experts advise that kids receive the first dose at age 9 or 10.

Reason #3: The HPV vaccine is for girls. My son doesn't need it.  
The HPV virus has typically been linked to cervical cancer, so it’s traditionally seemed less important for boys to receive the vaccine. “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."
All three HPV vaccines—Gardasil 9, Gardasil and Cervarix—are considered safe by the CDC (though only Gardasil 9 is used now). 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? Women and men who have not previously been vaccinated can receive the vaccine up to age 26. In special circumstances, a healthcare provider may recommend receiving the vaccine up until age 45.

Medically reviewed in July 2020.

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