By Leslie Kantor, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood.
Recently, a friend asked me about the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. She had heard that the virus can “clear up” on its own, so wanted to know whether the vaccine was really necessary for her child. Another friend wondered whether her daughter, a high school senior, should get the vaccine, though she may not have had sex yet. These are common questions and concerns about the HPV vaccine among parents. I’d like to put them to rest and tell you why I advised both my friends to be sure to get the HPV vaccine for their kids. Vaccinating our children against HPV is one of the most effective things parents can do for their kids’ health. It helps protect against the types of HPV that can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, anus, penis and throat, as well as genital warts. Here are a few more frequently asked questions about the HPV vaccine. How does the HPV vaccine protect against cervical cancer? Cervical cancer is caused by certain types of HPV, a very common sexually transmitted infection. In many cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV naturally, but certain strains of HPV can lead to cervical and other cancers. Given in three separate injections over six months, the HPV vaccine protects against two HPV strains that cause 70% of all cervical cancer cases. Is the vaccine safe? Studies show that the HPV vaccine is extremely safe. It is FDA-approved and routine vaccination is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Cancer Society and Planned Parenthood. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends it be given to girls and boys ages 11-12. Should my son get the HPV vaccine? Yes, the HPV vaccine benefits boys as well as girls. For boys, it can prevent genital warts and some cancers of the anus, penis and throat, as well as prevent the spread of HPV to his future partners. When should teens be vaccinated? It’s recommended that preteens get the HPV vaccine when they’re 11 or 12 for maximum effectiveness, but for teens and young adults the vaccine still offers some protection against HPV and cancers associated with HPV, especially if given before a person becomes sexually active. The closer to age 11 or 12 it’s given, the better. At age 13 or older, the vaccine is considered a catch-up. Does it cost a lot? Under the new health care law, HPV vaccines are covered at no cost. Millions of Americans who are uninsured can enroll in new, more affordable health care plans right now. For additional information, check out PlannedParenthodHealthInsuranceFacts.org. There are also programs that allow some people without insurance to access the vaccine at reduced or no cost, based on income. The staff at Planned Parenthood can help with accessing these programs. Will giving my child the vaccine give him/her permission to have sex? No, having the vaccine does not promote sexual activity among teens. Research shows that young people who get the HPV vaccine are no more likely to have sex than those who have not been vaccinated. As parents, we certainly want to protect our kids from cancer—and this vaccine can do that. Leslie Kantor is the vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. You can find her on Twitter at @LeslieKantor.