Seattle's Child

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HPV vaccine

Ask the Pediatrician: What to know about the HPV vaccine and your kids

Why do kids need it, and why so young? Answers from a doctor.

It feels like there are many things we cannot control these days — dare I say COVID numbers? Let’s take this moment to talk about something we can control: cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine.

A parent recently wondered: What is HPV and why is it so important to protect our children from HPV? Let’s talk about it.

Keep being awesome. We got this, Seattle!

As always, thank you so much for your great questions. Keep them coming. (Got a question for Dr. Block? Send it to jhanson@seattleschild.com.)

HPV vaccine: Keeping kids safe from HPV and cancer

What is HPV?

HPV is an incredibly common group of viruses. At some point almost every person will get human papillomavirus if they are unvaccinated. The tricky thing is that most people will never know they have it. Sometimes the immune system can fight it off, but other times HPV can linger in the body and cause cancer. 91% of cervical cancers in the U.S. are thought to be caused by HPV. While those of us older than 26 have not had the opportunity to be vaccinated against HPV, we can protect our children.

Do boys and girls need the vaccine? When should they get it?

The HPV vaccine is recommended for both boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 12. Interestingly, the vaccine is more effective if given to preteens rather than teens. Kids between 9 and 15 can be fully immunized with a 2-dose series. Studies show that preteens (9 to 12 years old) produce more antibodies after receiving the HPV vaccine than older adolescents, so younger is better. The vaccine seems to work better with preteen immune systems. Older teens can still get the vaccine, but they need a 3-dose series to be fully protected.

Let’s remember that we are talking about a cancer-preventing vaccine. The best time to get the HPV vaccine is before being exposed to HPV. HPV can be transmitted by many kinds of intimate exploration, so it’s recommended to get vaccinated as a preteen.

The HPV vaccine and sex

HPV vaccine — isn’t that for sexually active people?

HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact, typically in the setting of intimate exploration. Sexual intercourse is not required for HPV transmission. We know that most people become infected with HPV within two years of starting any sexual activity. Unfortunately, a person infected with HPV may have no symptoms and spread the infection (and the risk for cancer). Three out of four adults will have at least one HPV infection prior to the age of 30. More than 46,000 men and women suffer yearly from cancer caused by HPV.

As much as we can’t wrap our heads around this, at some point in their lives our children will become sexually active. Whether it is when they are teens or adults, the HPV vaccine is how we can prevent them from some types of future cancers for their entire life.

Receiving the HPV vaccine does not send a message that a child or teen is ready to start having sex.

Does getting the HPV vaccine mean we are having the “sex talk”?

Absolutely not, but this is a common question. It is important to remember that getting the HPV vaccine is not sending the message to have sex. In fact, it is not even the sex talk or the safe-sex talk. That’s a much bigger conversation and is likely to be many conversations. The HPV vaccine is just another way we can be mindful and keep our bodies healthy for a lifetime. Just like getting other vaccines, getting exercise, wearing helmets, and not smoking.

HPV vaccine safety

Is the HPV vaccine safe?

Yes. The HPV vaccine is approved for people from 9 to 26 years old. This vaccine is available in 80 countries around the world and there have been no serious safety concerns. It has been shown to protect people from almost all cases of cervical cancer, genital warts and pre-cancerous abnormal cells. The side effects from the vaccine are generally mild and can include soreness or redness at the site of the injection.

 

More from Dr. Block and Kaiser Permanente in Seattle’s Child:

Ask the Pediatrician: 8 tips for building an ‘attitude of gratitude’

Tips for talking with your kids about tough, tramatic topics

 

About the Author

Susanna Block

Dr. Susanna Block, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and lives with her family in Queen Anne.