Why should I vaccinate my child against HPV?

At every well visit, most kids are anxious to know, “Do I need shots today?!” As a caregiver, you may have a hard time keeping track of a full immunization schedule yourself, especially vaccines that aren’t mandatory.

Initially approved by the FDA in 2006, Gardasil 9 is so named because it protects against nine types of human papillomavirus (HPV). The CDC recommends vaccination at age 11 or 12, but it’s indicated for ages 9-26 and FDA-approved all the way to age 45. While it may feel awkward to consider your child’s long-term sexual health at a young age, Gardasil 9 is more about cancer prevention than anything else. Listed below are answers to common questions that we hope will assist your decision:

What is the vaccine for?

Gardasil 9 protects against HPV types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. Seven of these types can cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers in females, penile cancer in males, and anal cancer in females and males. The remaining two types can cause genital warts in both sexes. In 2020, vaccine’s approval was expanded for prevention of oropharyngeal, head and neck cancers.

“Head and neck cancers are among the fastest rising cancers in young men, and the majority are caused by the HPV virus,” says Dr. Lawrence Jones at East Louisville Pediatrics. “There are approximately 18,000 new cases annually in the U.S., mostly in males. Gardasil is critical in protecting your children from this type of cancer.”

While these cancers aren’t always caused by HPV, approximately 70% of vaginal cancer cases and up to 90% of anal cancer cases are HPV-related. A pap smear, or pap test, only checks for cervical cancer. Even with screening, the CDC estimates that HPV causes 10,8000 cases of cervical cancer per year in the U.S.

Why are we talking about sexual health while my child is still so young? 

As with any vaccine, Gardasil 9 is best given before the recipient is exposed to the virus. HPV is estimated to be the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, affecting millions of women and men every year. The virus usually has no signs or symptoms, so a carrier may spread it to others without knowing. HPV can clear on its own, but there is no way to predict who will or won’t clear the virus, and there is no treatment available to make it go away. Aside from cancer and genital warts, HPV can be responsible for uncomfortable diagnostic testing and fertility problems. If you’re considering delaying the vaccine until your child is older, note that for ages 15 and up, the vaccines are administered in a 3-dose series over 8 months compared to only 2 doses over 6-12 months for ages 14 and under. The 2- or 3-dose series must be completed for optimal protection.

 What if my child thinks it’s OK to have sex just because they got the vaccine?

According to the CDC, studies show that getting the HPV vaccine doesn’t make kids more likely to become sexually active. “Getting the vaccine is not about avoiding the consequences of sex—it’s about protection from cancer,” says Dr. Jones. Every physician at One Pediatrics is mindful to explain the vaccine’s benefits from this perspective.

Is Gardasil 9 safe?

Yes. The vaccine is FDA-approved and CDC-recommended. It is not possible to get HPV or any disease caused by HPV from Gardasil 9. Patients who have had a previous allergic reaction to a dose of Gardasil or Gardasil 9 should not repeat a dose, nor is it safe for anyone severely allergic to yeast. The same vaccine is used for both females and males.

Your doctor is happy to answer additional questions about Gardasil 9 or HPV, as well as any vaccine you’d like to know more about. Consider HPV vaccination like any other shot protecting your child from illness.

For more information, visit https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/parents/vaccine.html