Parents Perspective

Yes, My Son Is Getting the HPV Vaccine—Here's Why

Christine Coppa's son will have more than his reflexes, ears, and eyes checked at his annual check-up—he will also be getting his HPV vaccine. 

Boy Getting Vaccine Shot In Arm VP Photo Studio/Shutterstock

I can't believe my son is going to be 11 in August. He's grown into such a smart, empathetic, very tall, sometimes moody, athletic boy. He's almost as tall as me! (I'm 5'3"). I recently scheduled his well-checkup with his pediatrician like I do every spring so we get an appointment over the summer before school resumes. But this year my son will have more than his reflexes, eyes, and ears checked. He will be getting the HPV vaccine. My son has been on the recommended vaccine schedule since birth. 

The HPV vaccine is particularly important to me for one very serious reason: I am a head and neck cancer survivor.

The HPV vaccine protects against cancers caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this includes cancers of the cervix, vagina, and vulva in women; cancers of the penis in men; and cancers of the anus and back of the throat (including head and neck), for both women and men. According to the Atlantic HPV Center, part of the Leonard B. Kahn Head and Neck Cancer Institute at Morristown Medical Center in Morristown, NJ, head and neck cancer is more common among men than women—yet another reason my son will be receiving his HPV vaccine. 

When I think about what I went through: two neck surgeries, multiple fine needle biopsies, radiation, medication for life—I'll do everything in my power to prevent my son from getting any cancer.

Human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection. 79 million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, are infected with HPV.

The HPV shot wasn't around when I was 11. According to the CDC, since the vaccine was introduced more than 10 years ago, HPV infections have dropped significantly. Cancers and genital warts caused by HPV have dipped 71 percent among teen girls and 61 percent among young women. There has also been a decline in cervical pre-cancers. The HPV vaccination can prevent some of these cancers caused by HPV from ever developing.

This tween-teen stuff is hard. I wish I was back to playing trains on that wooden table and pushing him on a bucket swing, stepping on Legos in the dark, writing about potty training boys—and not explaining puberty, where babies come from—and YES, deodorant every single day, kiddo. YES, BOTH ARMS. NO. THAT. IS. TOO. MUCH. COLOGNE. Plus dealing with, "Mom, *Tina told me* Sara like-likes me!"

When he asked me about "tongue kissing," and claimed he heard people talking about it in school, I swear I polished off my glass of wine in one gulp and buried my face in the bag of Skinny Pop we were sharing. Then I said, "take the dog out." I just didn't want to talk about it. When he got back inside, I explained that people who love each other sometimes kiss that way, but you have to love the person a lot and be 21.

My son's father is not in the picture, so I field all these super fun questions. Like most kids, my son does not like needles or blood work, so I was not surprised by his reaction when I told him he's getting a shot at his next well-checkup.

"Whhhhhy, ma-oooooom!" he moaned.

"Like all ‪the vaccines you've gotten and don't even remember (cut to me thinking of his perfect, chubby baby thighs and Band-Aids and the crinkly white paper on the exam table), this one is to protect you, from getting sick, too."

I wasn't ready to go into how you can contract HPV, with my blond, right defender soccer player who wants to be an astronomer, talks about the World Cup non-stop, and polishes off two steaks at dinner. I decided he did not need to know about sexually transmitted infections just yet. 

But, parents, you need to know about HPV. 

To set the record straight, HPV is not a girl disease, the girl is not the host, and the vaccine is not just for girls. A lot of people hear HPV and think cervical cancer, but men or women can spread HPV. Girls and boys can get HPV by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus.

The CDC recommends three vaccines for 11-year-olds to protect against the infections that can cause meningitis (meningococcal conjugate vaccine), HPV cancers (HPV vaccine), and whooping cough (Tdap vaccine).

"A second dose of HPV vaccine is recommended six to 12 months after the first dose," advises Ian Branam, health communication specialist for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases within the CDC. "The number of doses your child needs depends on the age you start the series."

He advises, like with any vaccine, to get it early. In other words: Long before your child is having S-E-X—and I know you don't want to think about your teen having sex, because neither do I, but I'm also not lost on the concept. Chances are, your teen is going to have sex in high school or college.

Shots are never fun. "Some people who get the HPV vaccine may have pain and swelling in the upper arm, where the shot is given," Branam says.

Some kids experience fainting, nausea, and headache. Branam says fainting after any vaccine, including HPV vaccine, is more common among children. That's why he suggests lying down during the vaccination and remaining in that position for 15 minutes (I'll give my son his iPad. He'll be in heaven playing FIFA).

About 14 million Americans, including teens, become infected with HPV each year, according to the CDC. While most HPV infections will go away on their own, the ones that don't can cause certain types of cancer. And there are no recommended screening tests to detect these cancers before they cause life-threatening health problems.

"HPV vaccination is becoming more the norm for both girls and boys," Branam says. "The latest data shows that six out of 10 teen boys and girls have started the HPV vaccine series."

About 65 percent of girls received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine compared to 56 percent of boys. However, according to Branam, only four out of 10 teens have received all the recommended doses. This means many adolescents are still unprotected against cancers caused by HPV.

I'm not ready for my son to like girls or want to know about "tongue kissing." I want him to stay my little boy forever, the one who needs help unknotting his soccer cleats that are caked with mud and who will still engage me in a game on Tic-Tac-Toe on the diner's menu, while we wait for our cheeseburgers. I want him to stay cuddled on the couch with our golden retriever watching Major League Soccer and Sponge Bob. I want to pack his lunch and tuck a note in his bag forever, that says, 'Love, Mom XO.'

But this is not reality. Even though he will get older, I still want to protect him in every way that I can.

That's why my son is getting the HPV vaccine in August. Is yours?

Christine Coppa is the author of Rattled! (Crown 2009) Tweet her @ChrissyCop80