Vaccination against the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. – the human papillomavirus, or HPV – just became easier.
Introduced for girls in 2006 and for boys in 2011, the HPV vaccine has previously been recommended as a three-stage series for kids ages 9 to 14.
Now, after a review of HPV clinical trials, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that just two doses of HPV vaccine are sufficient for children age 14 or under, as long as the vaccines are given at least six months apart.
Why so young? This age range is ideal because it’s when immune response peaks, and it’s typically well before any exposure to the virus.
For teens and young adults ages 15 to 26, three HPV vaccinations are still recommended.
The HPV cancer link
HPV is linked to several cancers, including:
It also commonly causes genital warts.
The HPV vaccine has been shown to protect against these cancers — an extraordinary result for a simple vaccination — as well as genital warts.
HPV vaccination rates for boys
However, a majority of children to date — especially boys — have not been receiving all three vaccinations. The HPV vaccination rate among boys has been particularly concerning.
Here in California, the 2015 data for boys is:
- First vaccine = 58.5 percent
- Second vaccine = 41.8 percent
- Third vaccine = 29.5 percent
Why boys lag in vaccination rates
Why are boys lagging in getting a cancer-stopping vaccine? There are several explanations.
“Since the vaccine was first approved for girls to protect against cervical cancer, some parents don’t think boys need the vaccine,” says Dr. Behnoosh Afghani, UCI Health pediatric and infectious disease specialist and clinical program director. “The fact is that males can get genital warts, anal cancer and penile cancer as a result of HPV infection.”
“Teenage boys, in general, do not tend to seek medical attention other than for acute sickness or injuries,” adds Dr. Regan Chan, a family medicine specialist with UCI Health Medical Group — Orange. “It’s hard to get them to come in once, let alone more than once, when they are feeling well.”
The solution, both doctors agree, is education.
Why full vaccination is important
The full vaccination — including the series of only two doses for those ages 14 and under — is important to ensure the adequate stimulation of a child’s immune system. A single dosage provides only limited benefits.
“I have found that compliance rates improve when there is a better understanding on the benefits of vaccinating,” Chan says. “Thankfully, there are an increasing number of parents who have more awareness of HPV disease or are at least receptive to vaccinating their children.”
Afghani points out that, in addition to preventing genital warts, there are two other reasons to vaccinate boys:
- First, the oropharyngeal cancer rate is still prevalent, and these throat and neck cancers affect men at a higher rate than women.
- Second, unvaccinated boys are often “a silent carrier,” and without realizing it, they can infect and potentially cause cervical cancer in their future partner.
Disease prevention, not sex education
A big challenge for doctors such as Chan and Afghani is that HPV vaccination can begin between the ages of 9 and 14, long before most of parents are ready to even think of their children as sexually active.
Chan stresses that the issue here is all about cancer and disease prevention, not sex, as there is no evidence the vaccinations encourage early sexual activity. He suggests that an easy time to begin vaccinating children for HPV is when they get their Tdap (tetanus, pertussis, whooping cough) vaccination, which is often required for seventh-grade students.
The current HPV vaccine, manufactured under the brand name Gardasil 9, protects against the nine highest-risk strains of HPV. It has been deemed safe and effective by the CDC.
Anyone up to age 26 can get the HPV vaccine, although the effectiveness is reduced once the virus is already in your system. Chan notes he gives many such “catch-up” vaccinations since they offer protection against newer HPV strains.
The bottom line for Chan is this: “If you knew that there was a vaccine out there that actually prevents cancer, wouldn’t you want to get it?”
HPV at a glance
Other important HPV facts:
- It’s true that many healthy people will naturally rid themselves of the HPV virus. However, the risks of getting cervical cancer or unknowingly infecting others with the virus are far too real to ignore the vaccine, advocates say.
- The HPV vaccine does not protect against other sexually transmitted diseases. Women should still get PAP smears, and both partners should follow responsible sex practices.
- The HPV vaccine is considered to be very safe, but it may cause some short-lived arm tenderness or mild swelling. A small percentage of those vaccinated may feel dizzy or even faint, so your doctor should keep an eye on your child for 15 minutes afterward to ensure there is no adverse reaction.
- Insurance coverage of the HPV vaccine is now commonplace. Check with your healthcare provider to be sure.