A few years back I sat in a church basement with my parenting group and listened to a male OB-GYN describe how he discussed safe sex with his own kids.
Yes, that was a church basement. Yes, that was a male gynecologist. And the topic at that moment was, yes, kids and sex.
I hope I got your attention. Because he sure got mine, especially as this seemed an unlikely and absurd senario. But still, the topic was pertinent and this doctor’s message clear: we as parents would be sorely amiss to assume our kids will honor abstinence at our request. He rationalized that it is not “if” but “when” kids become sexually active (about a third of 16-year-olds are) and believed parents need to educate their children on the use of condoms and birth control pills.
But we as parents need some education as well. A recent dialogue on Facebook prompted me to learn more about the HPV vaccine, which came into recommendation after I “retired” from medicine. While some coming-of-age topics are pretty straightforward, such as “When can I get a credit card?” (age 35 seems about right), others…not so easy. No one wants to consider their little girl (or boy) soon needing “protection.” However, they likely will. It is unrealistic to assume the opposite. Before our kids seek methods of preventing pregnancy and STD’s on their own, we parents need to make an important decision for them in this regard. And that is to vaccinate our children against HPV.
HPV (human papillomavirus) is the most common STD in the United States. With over 40 subtypes, most sexually active persons will contract one or more strains during the course of their lives. Really. The good news is that 90 percent of infections resolve on their own, but it is the remaining 10 percent we need to be concerned about. It is these more aggressive subtypes that can cause genital warts and cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus and penis.
So enter the HPV vaccines: Cervarix, Gardasil and Gardasil 9. And here’s what you need to know about protecting your child:
~Your child needs one of the Gardasil vaccines. Cervarix only targets cervical cancer but the other two are approved for both girls and boys in the prevention of genital warts and the five cancers listed above.
~Your child should start the vaccine series at age 11 or 12. This seems young, but there is a rationale. The series of three shots (given over a period of six months) needs to be completed before your child is exposed to the HPV virus (in other words, before becoming sexually active) so a full immune response is attained. In other words, the best protection against infections caused by HPV starts with the earliest possible vaccination. So don’t put off starting the vaccine…studies have shown there is a better immune response in “tweens” than in young adults. However:
~Your child should still get the HPV vaccine even if they are older than the recommended age. Yes, the vaccine could be less effective but some protection is better than none at all. All three HPV vaccines are approved for use in young women up to age 26 and in young men up to age 21 and can (and should) still be given even if your child is already sexually active.
~The HPV vaccines are considered safe. While there are possible side effects, such as pain and redness at the injection site, headache and fever, most vaccines can cause the same, temporary effects and these effects are easily remedied. And a very small price to pay for protection against potentially life-threatening diseases.
~The HPV vaccines are effective. Studies have shown a remarkable near-100 percent protection rate against precancerous cells and HPV 4 (the subtype that causes genital warts). In fact, since 2006 there has been a 56 percent decrease in HPV infection in teenage girls. Considering this in the light of less-than-ideal vaccination rates, this is quite promising.
~Don’t let your child become a statistic:
At any given time, one percent (or one of 100) adults has genital warts.
Each year, 9,300 men and 17,500 women have a cancer related to HPV.
The HPV vaccine has had a tough row to hoe. No one likes to think about their child becoming sexually active too early, for the wrong reasons and against the values we have worked to help them internalize. Which means whether or not to have children vaccinated with the HPV vaccination is often couched in a values debate:
“If I accept the series of shots for my child, that gives him or her license to have intercourse before the “right” time.”
The rebuttal is this: no, protecting our children against serious illness is never the wrong decision. In fact, providing our children with the HPV vaccine can open the door to further discussion about premarital sex, condoms and birth control pills and our family values and viewpoints on these topics. These are difficult talks to have with our children, but as the vocal doctor who came to talk with my church-based parenting group said: an honest, open dialogue is key to our children’s sexual health. In fact:
It could save their lives.