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Ask the Doc: Should My Child Get the HPV Vaccine?

Image of Ashley Warren, a volunteer military spouse, poses with her two kids in attendance during the annual UTNG-Kids summer camp at Camp Williams, Utah, June 28, 2022. Utah National Guard Youth Programs hosts this summer camp each year, inviting kids within specific age groups to come experience team building, crafts, and learning in a safe and fun environment. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jordan Hack) . In this “Ask the Doc” article, learn about how HPV vaccination is the best way to prevent infection, and HPV vaccines in the U.S are highly effective at preventing infection from nine of the most serious types of HPV viruses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that all children get the HPV vaccine at a well-child pre-teen visit between ages 9 and 12. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jordan Hack)

Dear Doc: I’ve heard about HPV—I know it’s a sexually transmitted disease, and can cause some health problems, but not much more. I have a 12-year-old daughter, and her pediatrician wants to give her the HPV vaccine. This makes me really uncomfortable. What is HPV? How important is it to get a vaccination? Is it safe for my child?

-Capt. Concerned

Dear Capt. Concerned,

You’re not alone! While many people have heard of human papillomavirus, or HPV, a recent study from the American Association for Cancer Research found U.S. adults are less aware of the link between HPV and certain cancers.

We reached out to an expert to answer your questions: Dr. Margaret Ryan is the medical director of the Defense Health Agency’s Immunization Health Division in the Pacific Region. She is a vaccine expert with a background in preventive medicine and infectious disease.

Dr. Ryan said,

Thanks for asking these great questions. I understand your concern, but please know that HPV vaccines are safe and effective. I confidently recommend HPV vaccination for my patients, and for my own children. HPV vaccination prevents very serious health problems, including certain cancers. When people become fully vaccinated before exposure to HPV, they may maintain protection against these specific health threats for the rest of their lives.

What is HPV?

HPV is a group of more than 200 related viruses that can cause lesions on the skin or mucus membranes, the lining of the mouth or genital areas. The virus is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States and spreads from person-to-person by direct skin contact or intimate contact with mucus membranes.

Some types of HPV viruses cause wart-like lesions on the skin or mucus membranes. Some of these HPV lesions may go away without treatment, while others may require treatment, such as “freezing” with liquid nitrogen. Some HPV lesions are unnoticeable, and some HPV lesions may appear and resolve multiple times in the infected person’s lifetime.

There are 14 types of HPV considered “high-risk” because the lesions they cause can lead to cancer. In fact, nearly all cervical cancers are associated with previous HPV infection. HPV-related cancers may occur in the mouth or throat, on the genital area, in the anus, in the vagina, or on the Click to closeCervixThe cervix is the lower, narrow end of the Click to closeuterusAlso known as the womb, the uterus is the female reproductive organ where a baby grows. uterus (womb).  The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina (birth canal).cervix. HPV-related cancers may also appear years after a person was first infected.

HPV is a Common Infection

It’s estimated that more than 90% of people who are sexually active, and not protected from HPV, will become infected with at least one type of HPV in their lifetime. Most infections will not cause serious health problems. However, even with growing understanding of HPV infections and prevention measures, there are many new cases of HPV-related cancer each year. In the U.S., more than 35,000 new cases of HPV-related cancer are diagnosed each year. In the world, it is estimated that at least 500,000 women and 60,000 men will be newly diagnosed with HPV-related cancer this year.

Preventing HPV with Vaccination

Avoiding skin contact, or intimate contact, with HPV lesions can lower the risk of transmitting HPV infection. Using condoms can also lower transmission. However, many HPV infections cause no noticeable lesions on the skin or mucus membranes, so these methods are often not enough to stop transmission.

HPV vaccination is the best way to prevent infection. HPV vaccines in the U.S. are highly effective at preventing infection from nine of the most serious types of HPV viruses. After a person gets the full vaccine series, they will generally have lifetime protection.

HPV vaccines are ideally given before a person has exposure to HPV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that all children get the HPV vaccine at a well-child pre-teen visit between ages 9 and 12.

Unvaccinated people diagnosed with HPV lesions, or even HPV-related cancer, may still benefit from vaccination. The vaccine will not cure lesions or cancer, but it may prevent infection from other high-risk types of HPV viruses, and therefore additional health problems. The vaccine is approved and available for adults up to age 45 years old.

Capt. Concerned, I hope this information was helpful. For more about HPV and the vaccine, please view the resources below.

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Last Updated: September 20, 2023
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