It’s what we have all been waiting for…a vaccine for cancer, right? So if someone told you there already was a vaccine for cancer, and receiving it could protect your child from several forms of the disease, wouldn’t you make sure your kids got it? Unfortunately too many parents are overlooking an important safeguard, the HPV vaccine, that actually can protect against HPV-associated cancers including cancers of the tongue, cervix, vagina, vulva, anus and penis, despite the fact that the CDC strongly recommends it for 11 – 12-year-old boys and girls.
It turns out that some miscommunications in the early rollout of the vaccine, some unfortunate myths and, let’s face it, parental denial are probably most responsible for the confusion and lack of action when it comes to parents getting their kids vaccinated for HPV. Well-Being joined forces with Dr. Megan Washington, Pediatrician with Merit Health Medical Group and Dr. Chad Cooley, OB/GYN, who recently joined Jackson Healthcare for Women, to help dispel the myths and uncover the facts about the HPV vaccine, who should get it and when.
Because the HPV vaccine is usually first addressed at age 11 or 12, when a child sees his or her pediatrician or primary care physician, Well-Being spoke with Dr. Washington about whether the vaccine is a regular part of a well-visit for kids as they near or reach their tweens. “In our clinic, we discuss the HPV vaccine for the first time at the 11-year-old visit if parents haven’t brought it up sooner,” Dr. Washington explains. “I recommend starting the vaccine series at age 11, but it can be given as early as 9. Most importantly, we want to complete the vaccine series long before a child has any form of sexual contact so they are protected from the virus. If parents decide to wait, we discuss it at each subsequent well visit.”
MYTH BUSTER: Initially no one explained to parents that the vaccine is most effective in children. Younger children have a more robust immune response to HPV vaccine compared to older children and young adults. Specifically, children 9 to 15 years of age develop higher antibody levels after the vaccine series compared to 16- to 26-year-olds.
According to Dr. Washington, one of the biggest concerns parents have is about the safety of the vaccine.
“There is a lot of misleading information about the HPV vaccine on the internet and social media, so parents want to know what is best for their children and want to be reassured that the vaccine is safe and effective.”
The most common side effects of the HPV vaccine are injection site reactions (redness/swelling) and syncope (passing out) shortly after the vaccine is given. In Dr. Washington’s clinic, they typically have patients sit for 15 minutes after the vaccine is given to ensure there are no issues. The HPV vaccine has documented safety in large clinical trials and the side effects that you read about on the internet are not founded in science.
MYTH BUSTER: One of the biggest myths about the HPV vaccine is that it is only for girls. This myth probably got started because the vaccine was first tested and approved by the FDA for girls and women. It was approved for boys three years later.
“The vaccine is recommended for both boys and girls for a number of reasons,” adds Dr. Washington. “Many people think the vaccine is just for cervical cancer and genital warts but that is not the case. It protects against penile and anal cancer as well as many head and neck cancers that are also caused by the human papillomavirus. Because boys are also at risk for these cancers they should receive the vaccine as well. It also protects their future partners.”
MYTH BUSTER: Many people are not aware that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. Not only is it transmitted vaginally, but anally and orally and can even be transmitted from close skin to skin contact without penetration during sexual activity.
“One concern that parents sometimes express is that receiving the vaccine will give children the ‘ok’ to become sexually active,” notes Dr. Washington. “When we discuss this vaccine, the majority of children are very naïve to its purpose. I tell parents there is no need to tell the child what it is for other than to protect them from a disease. That being said, many children are starting to explore sexual behaviors as early as 12 or 13. As parents we want to believe that our children will not become sexually active at that early age, but is it really worth risking their health when the vaccine can prevent their being infected with the virus?”
MYTH BUSTER: There has been much confusion about the number of shots required in the HPV vaccine series. According to the CDC, all kids who are 11 or 12 years old should get two shots of HPV vaccine six to twelve months apart. Adolescents who receive their two shots less than five months apart will require a third dose of HPV vaccine. If your child is older than 14 years, three shots will need to be given over 6 months. Also, three doses are still recommended for people with certain immune-compromising conditions aged 9 through 26 years.
Dr. Chad Cooley brought a different perspective to our discussion of the HPV virus. As an ObGyn, he often sees young patients for their first gynecological exam and the HPV vaccine is a part of that discussion.
“The first ObGyn visit usually occurs around the age of 18,” says Dr. Cooley. “I recommend seeing an ObGyn earlier if a person becomes sexually active, has menstrual abnormalities, or desires to discuss birth control options.”
Dr. Cooley stresses the importance of early, candid conversation about HPV and the reasons why the vaccine is so important.
“Discussing the HPV vaccine is imperative prior to the onset of sexual intercourse. It offers protection against the most prevalent cancer causing strains of the HPV virus. Initiating that discussion is also a useful gateway to discussing other STD’s and modes of transmission. In my experience, 50% of new young patients have had discussions with pediatricians about vaccines while the other 50% have not heard about HPV. Regardless of their knowledge base, all patients are counseled about HPV and available vaccinations.”
MYTH BUSTER: The misconception that the HPV vaccine cannot be given after someone has become sexually active is false. The vaccination may be administered regardless of prior sexual activity. A person who has engaged in sexual activity may not have been infected, and the vaccine protects them going forward.
“As an ObGyn, I think it is important to educate patients and emphasize the exposure rate of HPV, as well as the purpose and benefits of the vaccine. As a physician of adolescent patients, the approach and tone of the conversation are paramount when discussing sexual intercourse, STD’s and vaccinations,” Dr. Cooley continues.
HPV vaccination is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. The HPV vaccine, which has been found to be nearly100% effective when administered as advised, can protect against several forms of cancer that when combined affect an average of nearly 40,000 people a year. You can prevent your child from being one of those statistics before they are at risk of being infected. In the uncertain world of parenting, that’s a real WIN-WIN.
Megan Washington, D.O., Pediatrician with Merit Health Medical Group, earned her Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree from Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, Kansas City, MO. Prior to joining Merit Health Medical Group, she was a pediatrician in St. Louis, MO. Dr. Washington is board certified by the American Board of Pediatrics.
Chad E. Cooley, M.D., Obstetrics and Gynecology, with Jackson Healthcare for Women earned his Doctor of Medicine Degree from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in Jackson, MS and served his residency at University of Mississippi Medical Center. Dr. Cooley has recently joined the practice of Jackson Healthcare for Women and is taking new patients.