When Should My Children Get the HPV Vaccine?

Q:  I just brought my 11 & 12 year old son and daughter in for their yearly physical & was surprised when the doctor advised a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease, HPV. What is that all about? I’m sure my kids aren’t having sexual relations for a long, long time.

A:  It is true that HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) is transmitted through sexual activity. However, recommending vaccinating against it in preteens is not inferring that your children are ready to have sex in the near future. In fact, it’s just the opposite—it’s important to get your children protected before you or your children have to think about this issue—long before they begin sexual activity with another person.

The immune response to the vaccine is better in preteens, and this could mean better protection against HPV-related cancers for your children in the long term. Almost all sexually active people will get some form of HPV at some time in their lives, though most will never know it. Most of the time, the body fights off the HPV before it causes any issues, but sometimes it does not and HPV infection can lead to genital warts and cancers.

Every year in the US, there are about 17,000 women and 9,000 men are affected by these types of cancers. Many of these cases of cervical cancer, penile cancer, anal and mouth and throat cancers could have been prevented by this vaccination.  

Two vaccines are available to girls and young women (Gardisil and Cervarix) and one to males (Gardisil). Both vaccines are given as a series of three shots over six months. These have been given to tens of thousands of people around the globe—in fact, more than 57 million doses have been distributed to date and there have been no serious safety concerns. As with any vaccine, the CDC and FDA continue to monitor for untoward side effects.

Most common side effects reported are mild and similar to other vaccines: pain where the shot was given, fever, dizziness and nausea. Occasional kids faint with these vaccines as well, so we typically monitor them for a few minutes afterwards. In research studies, the vaccine has shown to be very effective as well—showing a significant reduction in infections caused by certain types of HPV targeted by the vaccine.

Today’s expert is Ann Jones, MD, pediatrician, ThedaCare Physicians-Pediatrics in Appleton.