The Truth About the HPV Vaccine

Experts estimate that half, yes, half, of all sexually active people will get the human papillomavirus (HPV), the leading cause of cervical cancer. 


That's why the CDC now recommends that all girls and boys get vaccinated by age 12. But inoculation rates significantly trail those for other diseases. "Many parents are wary of all vaccines, and feel even more uneasy about this one because it's for a sexually transmitted infection linked to cancer," says Cora Breuner, M.D., a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Before you decide on the shot (or not), read up on these common myths.

MYTH: Severe side effects have been linked with the HPV vaccine.

FACT: All vaccines are put through rigorous safety testing before being approved. "This one is just as safe as any others kids normally receive," says gynecologist and Family Circle Health Advisory Board member Alyssa Dweck, M.D. More than 35 million doses have been administered, with few complications. Common reactions are temporary and mild, including soreness in the arm, low fever and joint pain.

MYTH: There's no reason to have kids immunized before they're sexually active.

FACT: "HPV is so widespread that it's best to get vaccinated before having sex for the first time," Breuner says. More than 20% of 9th-grade students and almost half of 12th-graders are sexually active. Older kids can still be vaccinated up to age 26.

MYTH: Allowing your children to get vaccinated is like giving them permission to have sex.

FACT: You're red-lighting cancer, not green-lighting intercourse. If you're concerned about sending the wrong message, let the shot talk segue into a chat about where you stand on intimacy and pregnancy. Studies show that kids who talk to their parents about sex are more likely to delay having it. "You can start by saying, 'My role as your parent is to give you every chance I can to have a healthy life. This vaccine may help you avoid a type of cancer later in life,'" suggests Breuner.

MYTH: The vaccine eliminates the need for Pap tests.

FACT: A gynecologist is looking for more than just cervical cancer at your annual appointment. Plus, more than 150 strains of HPV exist, and the two available vaccines protect against only four of them. Gardasil prevents the two types that cause genital warts and two others that are responsible for about 75% of all cases of cervical cancer. Cervarix guards only against the strains that can cause cancer.

The HPV vaccine is not a one-and-done deal—it's a series of three shots given over six months. The second dose should be given one to two months after the first, and the third should be given six months after the first.

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Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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