As a teenager enters the exam room for their yearly checkup at their doctor’s office, chances are his or her physician will ask if they are familiar with the sexually transmitted disease human papillomavirus, most commonly known as HPV. Over the years, there has been a rise in the discussion of HPV amongst families, adolescents and physicians. And why wouldn’t there be? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and nearly 80 million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, are infected with the virus.*
HPV is transferred through sexual contact and can cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers in women and penile cancer in men, head and neck cancers and colon cancer in men and women. In addition to the potential of developing cancer, the virus can also cause genital warts. These warts can come in all shapes and sizes, and if left untreated and properly examined and diagnosed by a physician, can spread to surrounding skin areas.
Fortunately, today, a safe and effective vaccine exists to protect against HPV. Administered to both boys and girls in their preteens in either two or three separate doses over the course of several months, the vaccine offers a higher level of immunity. The vaccine does not protect against all forms of cancer, so routine screenings and testing are important.
A common misconception is that teenagers or adults do not need to receive the vaccine until they are considering becoming sexually active. However, it is recommended that preteens receive the HPV vaccine between the ages of 9 and 12 to limit their exposure to HPV. Data indicates that the vaccine is more effective in younger adolescents. Therefore, if the vaccine series is initiated before the adolescent’s 15th birthday, a total of two doses are needed to complete the series as opposed to three doses in older adolescents. In addition to safe sex practices, such as the usage of condoms, being proactive with the vaccine is the best way to prevent and reduce the risk of contracting HPV.
Before receiving the vaccine, parents or guardians should have an open and honest conversation with their children about the importance of the vaccine, why they are getting it now and overall safe sex practices with a partner when they are ready. For additional information about HPV and the vaccine, contact your child’s physician.
*“Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Nov. 2017, www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm.