Parents Perspective

You Have the Power to Prevent Cancer in Your Child. Will You Use It?

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If you could inoculate your child against a virus that causes nearly 30,000 cases of cancer in the U.S. each year, would you?

Well, the good news is—you can! The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes the vast majority of cervical and anal cancers, and the HPV vaccine prevents nearly all of them. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the vaccine for all boys and girls. The vaccine is given in three shots over the course of six months, ideally starting when a child is 11 or 12. Doctors recommend vaccinating children at this age so their immunity has time to develop before they become sexually active.

Even though my child isn't old enough to receive the shots yet, the HPV vaccine sounds like a no-brainer to me. But many parents aren't convinced. The CDC recently reported that a whopping forty percent of teenage girls and sixty percent of teenage boys haven't started receiving the series of vaccines.

Related: Parents Question Mandatory HPV Vaccines for Middle-Schoolers

Researchers are struggling to figure out why so many parents are reluctant. The vast majority of pre-teens are receiving their Tdap and meninigitis vaccines, so it's not an over-arching anti-vaccine movement that's causing the lag. Chances are it isn't money either, since private insurers are required to cover it without a copay and the government provides it for free to low-income families.

My bet is that one of the main reasons parents aren't vaccinating their children against HPV is because the disease is sexually transmitted. Parents may feel that the vaccine isn't necessary since their children are so far away from being sexually active (the average American now loses his or her virginity at about age 17). But, let's face it moms and dads, our kids are going to be sexually active at some point, and they deserve to be protected. Why wait?

Well, some parents believe that by getting the shots their children are more likely to become sexually active sooner. The thinking goes like this: If my child knows she won't get cancer from having sex, then she's more likely to have sex!

Really? There are so many factors that go into a teenager's decision to have sex. Intuitively, it just doesn't make sense to me that kids will be more likely to go all the way if they're not worried about cancer. And, thankfully, we have more than just my gut to go on. Research backs this up. A study in the medical journal Pediatrics reports that receiving the HPV vaccine during childhood does not promote promiscuity.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general and director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, suggests another culprit. Vaccination rates may be low because doctors aren't recommending the vaccine strongly enough to their patients. "A provider recommendation is really important, and parents are waiting for that on those doctor visits," she says.

Whatever the reason, we parents need to step up and make sure our kids are fully vaccinated. My daughter is 9 years-old, so only two years away from beginning the HPV vaccination series. As you've probably guessed, I won't hesitate to have her inoculated. While I very much hope that she won't become sexually active until she's at least 25 (ha, kidding!), I would do anything in my power to protect her from cancer or any other disease.

Jenna Helwig is the food editor at Parents, and the author of Real Baby Food and Smoothie-licious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram, where she usually posts about food, not STDs.

Vaccines for Babies and Older Kids

Image: Girl being vaccinated via Shutterstock