Parents can help prevent cancer by vaccinating their kids against HPV, but many parents are opting out. Here's what you should know.

By Jenna Helwig
August 04, 2015
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teenager getting vaccine shot
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If you could inoculate your child against a virus that causes more than 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 girls ages 9 through 26 years old and boys ages 9 to 21 years old. For children 9 to 14 years old, the vaccination is given in two or three doses, six to twelve months apart. For teens and adults 15 to 26 years old, it's given on a three-dose schedule with the second shot given two months after the first, and the third six months after the first. Doctors recommend vaccinating children when they are 11 or 12 so their immunity has time to develop before they become sexually active.

As the mother of a 12 year-old, the HPV vaccine sounds like a no-brainer to me. But many parents aren't convinced. The CDC recently reported thata whopping 35 percent of teenage girls and 44 percent of teenage boys haven't started receiving the series of vaccines. And only 43 percent of teens are up to date with all CDC recommended doses of the vaccine.

Researchers are struggling to figure out why so many parents are reluctant. The vast majority of pre-teens are receiving their Tdap and meningitis 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 for anyone under 26 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, the principal deputy director of CDC, spoke to when she was director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, and suggested 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 said.

Whatever the reason, we parents need to step up and make sure our kids are fully vaccinated. As you've probably guessed, I made sure my 12 year-old received the vaccine as soon as she was eligible. 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 senior food editor at Parents, and the author of Baby-Led, FeedingReal Baby Food, and Smoothie-licious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram, where she usually posts about food, not STDs.


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