By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD
Last week the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunizations recommended that boys as young as 9 years of age be vaccinated against the HPV virus, the most common sexually transmitted infection. HPV is also a leading cause of cervical cancer in women and throat cancer in men. Thus, according to the CDC and other independent investigators, vaccination against HPV can significantly reduce cancer rate and save thousands of lives.
Although research suggests that parental acceptance of HPV is actually much higher than anticipated (around 50% in most studies), a substantial number of parents (as high as 25%) are opposed to vaccinating their kids. In addition, despite relatively high parental acceptance of HPV vaccination, only about 1/3 of teen girls have been properly vaccinated. That is, most teens have not been vaccinated and are therefore unnecessarily at high risk of getting HPV.
Why are some parents opposed to HPV vaccination and why are the majority of kids not being vaccinated? Fortunately, research suggests that misinformation may be the most likely culprit and that providing accurate information to parents may significantly increase parental acceptability of these vaccines. For example, in one study (Davis et al., 2004) parental acceptability of HPV vaccination increased from 50% to 75% after receiving basic about HPV and the vaccine. This is why it is so important for parents to talk to their pediatricians openly about HPV vaccinations.
In addition, I wanted to address some concerns that parents may have regarding HPV vaccination.
First, parents may be wondering why it is necessary to vaccinate children and young teen boys and girls, given the HPV is a sexually transmitted condition. After all, most agree that kids and young teens should not be sexually active. The reason is that the HPV vaccine is most effective when the person is vaccinated before he or she is exposed to the virus; that is, before sexual activity starts. Some parents may saybut my teen is not sexually active. that may be true, but unless your teen is planning on joining a celibate order, one day your teen WILL be sexually active, whether as a teen or as an adult. So vaccination before this happens is critical. But the reality is that many, many teens ARE sexually active. In fact, close to 20% of teens will have sexual intercourse by age 14 and 46-48% of high school students are already sexually active (CDC 2006). In addition, a significantly higher percentage of teens will engage in other sexual activities, such as oral sex, even when delaying sexual intercourse which puts them at risk for HPV. This means that even if your teen is not engaging in sexual intercourse now, he or she may be engaging in other types of sexual activity that increase the chances of contracting HPV.
Another potential area of concern is the belief that teens may interpret the parental acceptance of HPV vaccines as an approval of sexual activity and thus they would start sexual activity early or would otherwise engage in unsafe sex practices. First, there is no evidence that suggests that HPV vaccination leads to early or unsafe sexual activity. That belief is simply not supported by the science. Yet, parents can greatly influence their kids views and behaviors on early sexual activity and safe sex. For example, teens who delay sexual activity or otherwise engage in safer sexual practices have parents who have open, supportive, communication about sexually transmitted diseases, methods of birth control, and the benefits of delaying sexual activity (Aspy et al., 2007). Thus if parents are interested in keeping their kids from having sex too early and being safe once they become sexually active, they should have open discussions about this topic. That is a much better option than not vaccinating against HPV!
In sum, the HPV vaccine has the potential to save thousands of lives by preventing cervical and other types of cancer. As discussed in this article, it is unlikely that the HPV vaccine would lead to early or unsafe sexual activity in teens. Instead, parents can have a greater influence in delaying their kids sexual initiation and ensuring they they engage in safer sexual practices by having supportive discussions about sexuality, abstinence, and safe sex. Finally, it is important for parents to talk to their pediatricians about the potential risks and benefits of HPV vaccines and make a decision base on accurate information about such benefits and risks.
C. B. Aspy, S.K. Vesely, R.F. Oman, S. Rodine, L. Marshall, K. McLeroy. (2007). Parental communication and youth sexual behaviour, Journal of Adolescence, Volume 30, Issue 3, 449-466
Centers for Disease Control (CDC). (2006). Youth behavior surveillance-United States, 2005. Morbidity & Mortality Weekly
Report, 55, 1–108
K. Davis, E.D. Dickman, D. Ferris and J.K. Dias, Human papillomavirus vaccine acceptability among parents of 10- to 15-year-old adolescents. J Low Genit Tract Dis, 8 (2004), pp. 188–194.