What You Need to Know About the HPV Vaccine

Is the HPV vaccine a life-saving cancer preventer … or a potentially deadly dose for girls? “Katie” medical contributor Dr. Mallika Marshall shares what you need to know about the vaccine.

Why do I recommend the HPV vaccine to my patients?

I’m in good company. My recommendation is in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control, and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Apart from the fact that the HPV vaccine can prevent genital warts in men and women, for which we really don’t have good treatments, it is one of the few weapons we have to actually prevent cancer. Not only cervical cancer, but cancer of the anus, the vagina, penile cancer, and head and neck cancers in both men and women.

Some would say that we don’t need to prevent cervical cancer because we have effective screening tools to identify cervical cancer in its earliest stages. However, even with PAP smears and HPV testing widely available, more than 12,000 American women are faced with cervical cancer every year and more than 4,000 die. Experts have estimated that if we could vaccinate all 12-year-old girls in the U.S., we could prevent 1,300 deaths every year.

Also, women with abnormal PAP smears or HPV test results often have to endure uncomfortable and sometimes painful procedures, sometimes several times a year. Some of these procedures can weaken the cervix and increase a woman’s risk of preterm labor should she become pregnant, so in my opinion it would be better to prevent infection all together.

At what ages do I recommend the HPV vaccine?

It’s approved for ages 9 to 26 but the CDC recommends it be given to girls at about 11 or 12 years of age. One main reason is that it needs to be given before kids become sexually active to be most effective. And let’s face it, many young people are engaging in sexual activity in their early teens, whether we like it or not.

Why do I also recommend it for boys?

For two reasons. The human papillomavirus causes genital warts, cancer of the anus, and cancers of the head and neck, all of which can affect men, as well as women. The HPV vaccine has been found to be effective at preventing these complications.

Also, by vaccinating boys, we are helping to prevent further spread of the virus to their future sexual partners.

What is my response to parents who are concerned about giving the vaccine to their kids?

I’m a parent of three young children, so believe me, I understand why parents worry about their children and raise questions about new vaccine recommendations. I do too. Many parents have chosen to wait a few years before getting their kids vaccinated against HPV, but most have eventually decided to do so. Over the past several years, hundreds of millions of doses of HPV vaccine have been administered and the vast, vast majority of kids have had no problems whatsoever.

Multiple studies on the safety of the HPV vaccine have been reviewed by independent scientists and doctors who have no financial stake in the HPV vaccine and want to ensure the safety and well-being of our young people. They found no cause and effect relationship between the HPV vaccine and some of the serious side effects that have been reported.

We have to be careful not to jump to the conclusion that just because something happens around the same time as something else, that one thing led to the other.

Looking at another vaccine as an example, many people who get the flu vaccine may develop flu-like symptoms several days later and assume that the shot caused the flu. Instead, it’s likely that the person contracted the flu before the flu shot had a chance to take effect or that they developed another flu-like viral illness. But the flu shot does not actually cause the flu and therefore should not blamed for someone getting sick around the same time.

What are common side effects after receiving the HPV vaccine?

Most kids don’t have any side effects, but if they do, it’s usually redness and pain at the injection site, which you can get with any shot. There have been some reports of fainting, but it turns out that young teens often faint after getting shots and that it doesn’t happen any more often with the HPV vaccine as it does with say, the flu shot. However, nurses are now advised to have patients sit or lie down for 15 minutes after getting the injection.

What should I do if I still am not sure whether I want to vaccinate my child or not?

Talk to your pediatrician about your concerns. If she can’t answer all of your questions, she can point you in the right direction and refer you to reputable websites with more information.

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