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The HPV vaccine: What parents should know

Vaccination can help protect your child from genital warts and certain types of cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. Nearly all sexually active people are infected with HPV at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But vaccination can help prevent HPV and the cases of cancer, genital warts and other health problems it can cause.

To work best, the vaccine needs to be given before someone is infected with HPV. So CDC recommends it for all girls and boys ages 11 or 12.

If you're a parent whose child hasn't received the HPV vaccine, read on to learn more about the health effects of HPV and how the vaccine can help.

The toll of HPV

Most HPV infections go away on their own without causing symptoms or requiring treatment. But some persist and do great harm.

According to CDC, health problems that may be caused by HPV include:

  • Cervical cancer. (HPV is the main cause of this disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.)
  • Vaginal and vulvar cancers.
  • Penile cancer.
  • Anal and oropharyngeal cancers.
  • Genital warts.

There are more than 200 types of HPV, and only certain ones are linked to cancer or genital warts. These include HPV types 16 and 18, which together are responsible for about 70% of cervical cancers, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These two HPV strains also cause most other HPV-related cancers.

HPV type 16 can also trigger cancers of the tongue, tonsils, throat and soft palate. And types 6 and 11 cause most genital warts.

Available vaccine

In the United States, Gardasil 9 is the available vaccine to protect against HPV, including cervical and anal cancer, and genital warts. It targets HPV types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58.

The vaccine is very safe. Testing has revealed no serious side effects, according to the NIH. The most common reactions, such as soreness or swelling at the injection site, are temporary.

A series of shots

To work best, the vaccine must be given in two or three doses over a six-month period. It should also be given long before a young person is sexually active, according to CDC.

Although the vaccine can prevent future HPV infections, it can't eliminate an existing HPV infection. And it is possible for someone to become infected with HPV the very first time he or she is sexually active, according to CDC. (Remember, most people who have HPV don't have symptoms.)

Though the vaccine is routinely given at ages 11 or 12, it can be safely given to children as young as 9, according to the FDA.

It also can be safely given through age 45. If your child needs catch-up vaccinations, speak to his or her healthcare provider.

Pap tests are still important

The vaccine does not protect against all the HPV types that cause cervical cancer, notes CDC, so women should still be regularly screened for cervical cancer with Pap tests—even if they were fully vaccinated against HPV as girls or young women.

Talk to your doctor

For more information on the HPV vaccine, talk with your child's doctor.

reviewed 10/31/2019

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