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Should My Child Get the HPV Vaccine?



The recommended slate of vaccinations falls among the many steps parents take to ensure the health and wellness of their children. The list includes shots to prevent hepatitis, tetanus and measles but also the human papillomavirus, or HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection. HPV, a group of viruses that can cause cancer and other health problems in both women and men, most commonly infects people in their late teens and early 20s. Still, many parents wonder: Should my child get the HPV shot?

What’s the HPV vaccine for?

Introduced a decade ago, the vaccine prevents HPV and the health problems it causes, including most cases of cervical, anal and mouth/throat cancer, as well as vaginal, vulvar and penile cancers and genital warts.

“HPV causes growths that are cancerous and growths that are not cancerous,” says Thomas C. Spalla, attending surgeon and director of ear, nose & throat facial plastic surgery at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, NJ. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that HPV-related cancers affect 17,500 women and 9,300 men in the U.S. every year.

Doctors recommend the vaccine for preteen boys and girls because it produces the best immune response at that age. “It’s an important part of the package of vaccines your teenager needs,” says Kristen A. Feemster, attending physician in the division of infectious disease at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “This is your chance at cancer prevention,” she adds.

“I was enthusiastic about my son getting the HPV vaccine, and I plan to have my daughters get it too,” says Megan Werner, attending physician at and associate medical director of Westside Family Healthcare in Wilmington, DE. “I don’t want them to be sick. HPV is so common.”

Outcomes show that the vaccine works. “More and more studies show the impact of it on preventing disease,” says Dr. Feemster. “There’s been a significant decrease in diagnoses of the HPV types the vaccine prevents, which cause the majority of related cancers.”

Who should get the shot?

The CDC recommends that boys and girls get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12. The earliest a child can receive the shot is age 9. The vaccine totals three shots, given over six months. If a child did not start or finish the shots on time, boys can get catch-up shots through age 22 and girls through age 27.

If they did not get the vaccine earlier, sexually active gay men, and both men and women with compromised immune systems — such as those living with HIV/ AIDS — should get the vaccine by age 27.

Children with severe allergies to latex, yeast or any other component of the vaccine should not get inoculated against HPV. In addition, “Ill children, such as those with a fever, can delay getting the vaccine,” says Dr. Werner.

Is it safe?

The most common HPV vaccine side effects are mild and include fever, dizziness, nausea and pain and redness at the inoculation site. Serious side effects rarely occur.

“The HPV vaccine has been proven to be safe” says Dr. Feemster. “There’s no evidence that HPV vaccines on the market contain mercury,” adds Dr. Werner.

“I hope parents can look past the social stigma of the vaccine, recognize that most Americans have some form of HPV and get their children vaccinated,” says Dr. Spalla. “We can prevent thousands of cancers every year.”

Nicole D. Crawford is a freelance writer.

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