Do My Children Need the HPV Vaccine?
This guest post was written by Denise Olson, a mother of four who connected with The Arizona Partnership for Immunization (TAPI) in her efforts to learn more about the HPV vaccination.
Like all good moms, I want my kids to grow up safe and healthy. I want to make decisions that will benefit them right now, but I also need to think about things that could help them in the future. I feel like it’s a big job and a lot is depending on me. That is why I wanted to learn more about the HPV vaccine before my children were old enough to get it. I wanted to make an informed choice, and I had all kinds of questions.
What is HPV, anyway? Could a vaccine actually protect my children from cancer? Are there side effects? What about the scary rumors I heard on the internet? Why is the vaccine given at age 11? Are my kids really at risk for HPV, or is this unnecessary medicine?
I wrote this article to share the answers I found to my questions, and to hopefully convince other parents to think about how they can protect their own children, not only now, but in the future.
What is HPV anyway?
HPV stands for human papilloma virus. HPV lives on soft mucous membranes and skin. Usually, it can be found on the genitals of an infected person, but it can also infect the anus, mouth and throat.
Some strains of HPV viruses cause genital warts, while others can cause tumors or cancers to grow. While there are many different types of HPV, there are several different HPV vaccines licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The bivalent HPV vaccine (Cervarix) prevents the two HPV types, 16 and 18, which cause 70% of cervical cancers. There is also a quadrivalent HPV vaccine (Gardasil) which prevents against four HPV types: HPV 16 and 18, as well as HPV 6 and 11, which cause 90% of genital warts. The quadrivalent vaccine has also been shown to protect against cancers of the anus, vagina and vulva and is the only HPV vaccine licensed for use in males. And just last week, the FDA approved a new HPV vaccine (Gardasil 9) which will protect against nine different strains has the potential to prevent approximately 90 percent of cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers.
Can the HPV vaccine actually protect my child from cancer?
The primary cancer the HPV vaccine is designed to protect against is cervical cancer, the same cancer that is checked for when women go in for a pap smear. However, because the vaccine stops dangerous HPV viruses anywhere in the body, it may help protect against some cancers of the penis, throat, mouth, and anus. This is one reason it is recommended for boys as well as for girls. (The other reason is to protect future partners from cervical cancer.)
Are there any side effects?
Despite the rumors you may have heard, there are very few side effects to the HPV vaccine. Like all vaccines, HPV vaccinations may cause redness and swelling at the injection site. There may also be soreness in the arm or a low-grade fever (under 103 degrees) that can linger for a few days. These are all signs of the body’s immune response, which is basically another indication that the vaccine is doing what it is intended to do.
Also, after investigating reports of fainting among teens who had received the vaccine, it was actually determined that the adolescents’ overall fear of needles is what commonly lead them to feel faint or light-headed either during, or after, vaccination. While it isn’t really a side effect of this vaccine in particular, it can be important for parents to know this can happen, so they don’t have to worry. It is always advisable for a patient to remain sitting or lying down for at least 15 minutes following any vaccination.
What about the scary rumors I read on the internet?
Scary rumors that circulate on the internet are what may be keeping parents from getting the real facts about this important vaccine. However, just like the stories of Neiman Marcus cookie recipes costing $250 or giant squids washing up on California beaches, these stories are exaggerated accounts or complete fabrications. In fact, snopes.com, a site known for collecting and debunking internet rumors, has published a very long piece detailing the numerous HPV vaccine rumors and lists them as one of their most famous urban legends.
Why is the vaccine given at age 11?
The HPV vaccine is recommended as a course of three doses, which can be administered as early as age 11. The timing of the vaccine is not arbitrary, but recommended for two specific reasons. First, scientific studies have determined that the immune response is best when administered at age 11/12, since the vaccine produces more antibodies to fight infection when given at this age, as compared to receiving the vaccine at a later age. Additionally, the vaccine is most effective when the complete three shot series is given before any possible exposure to the virus. Sadly, statistics show that 7% of kids aged 12 to 13 have had sex, and that number jumps to 28% by age 15.
It’s important to understand that the recommendation is NOT given because doctors feel children will become sexually active at age11. It is recommended at this age because it is probable that this is before first sexual activity and provides children with the protection they need when they do eventually have sexual contact with someone; even if that occurs twenty years down the road.
Are my kids really at risk for HPV, or is this unnecessary medicine?
I have found there are two groups of parents who feel their children are not at risk for HPV. Ironically, these parents often fall on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the expectations they have for their child’s future sexual behavior.
The first set of parents are those with conservative sexual values. They can see the value of the vaccine for other children, but don’t feel it is necessary for theirs. They don’t want their children to have sex with multiple partners, and instead encourage abstinence until they can find a lasting relationship. What these parents have failed to consider is that not all sexual relationships are consensual, not all partners are faithful and even abstaining until marriage does not ensure that your partner has done the same.
As horrible as it is to think about, both children and adults can have sexual contact with someone without their consent. Partners sometimes stray outside the boundaries of a monogamous relationship, exposing not only themselves, but the other partner who has remained faithful, to dangerous diseases. And of course there is no way to ensure that a future monogamous partner hasn’t already acquired HPV from a former relationship that may or may not be openly acknowledged by his or her current partner. In these situations the HPV vaccine is a safe and lasting gift of protection from HPV related cancers, no matter what the future brings.
The second group of parents is on the opposite end of the sexual continuum. These are the parents who believe that teaching their children about “safe sex”, and providing condoms or other birth control methods to their teenagers, eliminates the risk of contracting the HPV virus because these habits will carry them throughout their lives.
These parents have also made a miscalculation by not giving their children the invisible lifelong protection the HPV vaccine can offer. Birth control pills can only prevent pregnancies from occurring. It will not protect against HPV or any other sexually transmitted infection. While condoms can be a valuable tool for preventing the spread of infections that pass through contaminated body fluids, they do not provide good protection against the HPV virus. Remember, this virus does not live in the bodily fluids, but on the skin of those infected. Vaginal penetration does not need to occur for HPV to be spread, only skin-to-skin sexual contact with an infected person. The most effective way to stop your child from getting an HPV infection is to complete the vaccination series before sexual activities begins, period. Remember, the protection given them as a child will protect them for the rest of their lives.
Some HPV vaccine opponents have argued that because we can screen for cervical cancer, the vaccine is unnecessary. While it’s often possible to detect and treat cervical cancer, treatment is not without risks. Not only is there emotional and physical pain involved with treating cancer, but a woman’s cervix may be compromised during treatment that could affect her ability to carry a child later in life.
Also, many women fail to get regular pap smears and may not detect cancer until it is too late. Other types of cancers linked to the HPV virus (penile, throat, anus) are not commonly screened for and may not be detected until they have caused a very serious health problem. Screening is important and will continue to be important, but as they say “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
I hope that the information I’ve gathered and shared today will help other parents understand the risks of HPV, and the benefits of getting a vaccine to protect against it. My daughter is only eight-years-old, but she will get her HPV vaccine at age 11 so that she can live a safe and healthy future. As will my three younger sons, when they are of age.
Shot of Prevention would like to thank Denise and all the parents who share their personal vaccine-related stories, like those featured in this new HPV documentary entitled “Someone You Love”.
Vanessa Williams, who narrates the film, explains “The human papilloma virus may be the most widespread, misunderstood and potentially dangerous epidemic that most people hardly know anything about. Eighty percent of all people under 50 years of age will have a strain of the virus at some point in their lives and most will not even realize they have it. Cervical cancer is almost exclusively caused by HPV and it is the second leading cancer in women. Worldwide, cervical cancer kills over 250,000 women every year. Meet five unforgettable women whose lives have been changed forever and even interrupted by this deadly virus.”