By: Robert W Frenck, Jr. M.D., FAAP; Rebecca Perkins, MD, FACOG
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that spreads easily. In fact, it is so common that most adults are infected at least once in their life. Most of the time, our bodies can suppress HPV. When a person gets infected with the virus, there is no way to know who will develop cancer or other health problems. It can take years or decades before cancer from HPV infection develops.
Each year, more than 46,000 people—men and women—suffer from cancers caused by HPV. Over 7,000 die per year from cancers caused by HPV, including penile, vaginal, vulvar, anal, and head and neck cancers.
That is why your child or teen needs the HPV vaccine now—to protect against viruses that cause HPV-related cancers later.
How does HPV spread?
HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact. Although HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US, sexual intercourse is not required for transmission. Three of every four adults will have at least one HPV infection before age 30.
Someone who only has one partner can still get HPV.
Why do kids need the HPV vaccine now, if the cancers don't develop until they are adults?
There are several reasons not to wait. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids get the HPV vaccine starting at age 9 through 12 years. Vaccinating kids when it is most effective will protect them before they are exposed to the virus. It seems to last a lifetime—so it cannot be too early to vaccinate.
The HPV vaccine is also more effective if given at an earlier age. This is partly because pre-teens produce more antibody after HPV vaccination than older teens. HPV vaccines can be given at the same time as other vaccines.
Most children who get the first dose of HPV vaccine before their 15th birthday need two doses. The doses should be given 6 to 12 months apart.
People who start the HPV vaccine series at age 15 or later and younger people with certain immune conditions need three doses. The doses should be given over a six-month period (0, two and six months).
Is the HPV vaccine safe?
Yes! The HPV vaccine has a very good safety record. It is approved for everyone age 9 through 26 years. Some adults 27 through 45 years old also may be eligible for the HPV vaccine.
The vaccine protects people from:
over 90% of cancers caused by the virus,
pre-cancers (abnormal cells that lead to cancer),
almost all cases of cervical cancer,
nearly 100% of cases of genital warts and
a high percentage of other HPV-related cancers.
Millions of doses have been distributed, and there have been no serious safety concerns. The vaccine continues to be monitored for safety in over 80 countries around the world.
Are there side effects from the HPV vaccine?
As with any vaccine, a child might have pain or redness in the arm after the injection. In any type of medical procedure, it is not uncommon that preteens or teens might faint. For that reason, we ask kids or teens to sit in the doctor's office or waiting room for about 15 minutes after any shot.
HPV infections are so common that nearly all people will get at least one type of HPV at some time in their life. Sometimes, these infections do not go away. They last longer and cause cancer later in life. When kids get vaccinated, it protects them from cancer caused by HPV for a lifetime. Ask your pediatrician at your next checkup or schedule an appointment soon if your child or teen has not started the HPV vaccine series by the time they are 9-12 years old.
About Dr. Perkins:
Rebecca Perkins, MD, MSc, is a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University. She works on projects related to HPV vaccination and cervical cancer prevention with the AAP and other medical and public health groups.
About Dr. Frenck:
Robert W. Frenck Jr, MD, FAAP, is board-certified in pediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases and a member of the AAP Section on Infectious Diseases. He practices at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati.