By Karen Teelin, MD, Fellow in Adolescent Medicine, Division General Pediatrics
Should I give the HPV vaccine to my son?
You may have heard the news that the HPV vaccine (brand name Gardasil) is now recommended routinely for boys as well as girls, and you may be wondering what this shot is for and why you should consider it for your son. Your pediatrician will likely offer this vaccine to both your son and your daughter at age 11 or 12 (or older).
First of all, what is HPV? HPV stands for human papilloma virus. This is a very common virus. Approximately 75% of adults have been exposed to it. It is transmitted by close contact, including sexual contact. Fortunately, HPV is usually harmless. However, in some people, it can cause cancer. In addition, HPV is the cause of warts. Although rarely discussed, genital warts are common, and can be very upsetting and embarrassing to teens and young adults.
Vaccinating girls against HPV protects against cervical cancer, a serious, common, and potentially deadly type of cancer. We now know that giving boys the HPV vaccine protects against genital warts and may protect against some rare cancers. And vaccinating the boys as well as the girls helps create “herd immunity”, which means better protection for everyone.
Even if you think protection against cancer and warts sounds like a great idea, your next question is probably, “Is it safe?” Answer: Millions of doses of this vaccine have been given and it has been shown to be safe. Fainting episodes have been slightly more common after the HPV vaccine than with other vaccines (although still rare).
But how can you talk to your children about the need for this vaccine? This is a great opportunity to initiate an important conversation with your adolescent to share your values and to answer his or her questions. The topic can be daunting and many parents wonder how to approach it. In general, you should meet your child at his or her level and answer questions in a straightforward manner. Be willing to engage in an ongoing conversation as questions arise. It’s important that teenagers understand that sex is something to be shared in a loving, mutually committed and respectful relationship. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are very common, and anyone can catch them. The myth of safe sex should be dispelled. Abstinence or saving sex is the only way to guarantee protection against STDs. For adolescents who are sexually active, a condom should always be used.
In the end, it is up to you to decide about the HPV vaccine for your child. In our clinic, we recommend the HPV vaccine for boys and girls starting at 11-12 years old. (The vaccine only works if given before the child has been exposed to the virus.) Most importantly, we strongly recommend maintaining open lines of communication with your adolescent children in order to provide them with the information and support they need to make good decisions.
More information on HPV and the HPV vaccine can be found by clicking the links below.
Information on HPV from the National Library of Medicine: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/hpv.html
Frequently Asked Questions on the Vaccine from the Centers for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/Vaccines/HPV/hpv_faqs.html
Information more in tune with teens’ way of thinking and asking questions from KidsHealth.org: http://kidshealth.org/teen/sexual_health/stds/hpv_vaccine.html