Dr. LaSalle: While the Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV, is technically a sexually transmitted infection, it is SO COMMON that it takes NO high risk activity to become infected. We estimate that there are 79 million Americans currently infected with HPV and that there are 14 million new infections each year.
As a result, a person can become infected the very first time they have sex. In fact, intercourse is not even required for transmission. All that’s necessary is skin-to-skin contact. Even deep kissing has been shown to transmit HPV in saliva.
The reason we are so concerned about this virus is because it causes multiple types of deadly cancers, genital warts, and a devastating condition called Recurrent Laryngeal Papillomatosis. Our greatest worry is cancer.
There are nearly 40,000 cases of HPV-related cancers diagnosed in the United States each year. These include Cervical, Vaginal, Vulvar, Penile, Rectal, and Mouth and Throat cancers. These cancers, and their related loss of life or physical and psychological scars, are largely preventable with the HPV vaccine, which has been available in the US since 2006.
As one of our more recent additions to the vaccine schedule, there has been some confusion and misunderstandings about this vaccine.
Initially, it was only recommended for girls but both girls and boys are affected by HPV-related disease. So, in 2011, the vaccine was also recommended for boys. Both boys and girls need vaccination to be protected.
The vaccine was originally approved to be given between the ages of 9 and 26, with the recommended administration time between ages 11-12. This confuses some parents. If this is a sexually transmitted disease, why do we need to give it at such a young age? Won’t this give my kids the wrong message about sexual activity? Will it encourage them to become sexually active earlier? Will it even be effective by the time they need it? These are all great questions and concerns. Let’s talk about these individually.
We recommend the HPV vaccine at an early age for a couple of reasons. First, this vaccine is a prevention vaccine and does nothing to treat an infection once you have it. We want our kids to be protected BEFORE they become sexually active. Because we won’t always know when our kids become sexually active (as much as we’d like to think our kids will tell us everything, we know from being teenagers ourselves that this doesn’t always happen), and because some children will unfortunately suffer unwanted sexual contact, we need to protect them from an early age.
Second, studies show that our kids mount a much stronger immune response to this vaccine when it is given at younger ages than if we wait until later teen or young adult years. So, giving it earlier means it works better!