One of my supervisors, a woman in her early fifties, approached me the other day hoping to get some insight about the HPV vaccine. Her daughter-in-law recently took her 13 year-old son for a check-up and the doctor suggested that he get the HPV vaccine. “I didn’t even know boys could get that shot!” she revealed to me. The HPV shot can invite awkward conversations when a parent is forced to realize that one day their child will be sexually active and they need to begin to think of ways to keep them healthy. But you could be making a bigger deal than is necessary. Everything involving your child and sex doesn’t have to send you into complete panic, but it can be a welcome reminder about the importance of keeping the lines of communication open with your child and keeping yourself educated since sexual health is something that changes everyday.
Is this a decision a parent should make for their child? How can you explain to your child what the HPV vaccine is for if you can’t bring yourself to even talk about sex with them? What exactly is the shot and why do boys have to get it? The following frequently asked questions will hopefully bring you up to speed on what HPV means for both you and your child.
1. What exactly is HPV and how do you get it?
HPV (human papillomavirus) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. It is estimated that each year 6.2 million people will become infected, meaning almost every sexually active person in the United States will acquire HPV at some point in their lives. There are nearly 200 strains of HPV, but only 15 types are high-risk HPV that are responsible for cervical cancer in women; however, a few strains can cause genital warts in both males and females. Doctors are unsure why but a number of other strains can go undetected and disappear on their own causing no serious damage. HPV is a virus that can be spread through skin to skin contact during sexual activity. Most of the time HPV has no symptoms. It is most common in young people who are in their late teens and early twenties.
2. Is HPV more harmful to men or women?
It depends on what your idea of harm is. HPVs that doctors consider high-risk are those that cause cervical cancer and since only women have cervixes, they are considered at the greatest risk from dying from complications from HPV. Although men can carry and spread the strain that causes cervical cancer, they are only vulnerable to the effects of the strains that cause genital warts and anal cancer. In women HPV can also cause vulvar and vaginal cancer. Although genital warts can be uncomfortable and embarrassing they are not deadly and outbreaks can be controlled with medication and treatment. Keep in mind, HPV like other STI’s can be spread through anal, vaginal and oral sex in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.
3. Can HPV be cured?
Viruses cannot be cured. When it comes to STI’s an easy way to remember which ones are viruses are by remembering which ones begin with the letter “H” including herpes, HPV, and HIV. Just because a virus cannot be cured, does not mean an infected person cannot have a decent quality of life, especially when they practice a healthy lifestyle. HPV and other STI’s, however, can be prevented.
4. What is the HPV vaccine and do boys have to get it?
Since HPV was so closely associated with cervical cancer when the public became seriously aware of how common it was several years ago, men around the world wrote it off as a “women’s concern”. Since men are susceptible to HPV strains that cause genital warts and anal cancer, HPV is a concern for boys as well. Vaccines are available that can prevent both men and women from contracting the virus. Gardasil and Cervarix are two vaccines that prevent the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. Gardasil also protects against strains that cause genital warts in both males and females. Both shots are given in 3 shots over 6 months.
5. How can I tell if my child has HPV?
Unfortunately there isn’t an “HPV” test like there is an HIV test that can give you a positive or negative result. Both men and women infected with HPV can live for years without experiencing any symptoms. But keep in mind HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, so as long as your child isn’t sexually active they aren’t at any risk. Nonetheless it’s important for your children and teens to become familiar with exploring their bodies so they can be aware when there are abnormalities or growths, especially when they do become sexually active. You don’t know how many teens have approached me panicking over what they soon discover is only an ingrown hair.
Fortunately, most women are screened annually for cervical cancer via pap smears. There is no HPV screening for men, but yearly anal cancer screenings are encouraged for gay, bi-sexual and HIV-positive men since anal cancer is more positive in these men. For the most part though, experts do not recommend routine anal cancer screenings since it hasn’t been confirmed they are effective in prevention.
6. How do I talk about the HPV vaccine without revealing details about sex that I don’t think my child is ready for?
I believe conversations about healthy sexuality should begin long before your child steps into a doctor’s office. Parents and children should be comfortable having conversations about boundaries, sexual feelings and puberty before the HPV vaccine becomes an issue. A child who is already comfortable approaching his/her parents with questions about their body and sex won’t suddenly feel an overwhelming curiosity about sex simply from an HPV discussion. As a parent, it’s up to you as to how far in detail you want a discussion about HPV to go. There are many parents who will treat this vaccine no differently than one for measles or meningitis. But a talk about the HPV vaccine is one of many great opportunities to discuss sexual health and the importance of being sexually responsible. You don’t necessarily have to run down the differences between hormonal and barrier methods of birth control, but pre-teens should begin to have an understanding of what it means to practice good health and hygiene, and sexual health is an essential part of that discussion.
Most doctors recommend the HPV vaccine be given to children as early as the age of 9 and adults no later than the age of 26. Gardasil is safe and effective for males between the ages of 9 and 26 to prevent genital warts. Doctors suggest that 11 and 12 is the ideal age for girls to receive the vaccination. The vaccine can be given in later years, but it’s important that a person receives the vaccine before they become sexually active and possibly have been exposed to HPV. The vaccine does not work well for those who have been exposed to the virus through previous sexual contact.
7. Will the HPV shot invite questions about sex that I’m not ready to answer?
It could, but that’s no reason to avoid it entirely. Use your doctor as a resource to provide answers to questions you don’t feel comfortable or prepared to answer. Like I mentioned earlier, hopefully the HPV shot will not be the first time your child has ever heard about sex or reproduction. They may not know the difference between vaginal and anal sex, and it’s up to you decided if it’s a conversation you feel they are ready for. We all want our kids to enjoy being kids as long as possible, but at some point in their lives they more than likely will become sexually active and it’s important they understand that sex is a healthy normal part of a relationship under certain circumstances and they need to play a pro-active role in being responsible for their sexual health. Use this opportunity to educate yourself and empower your children.
8. Should my child be involved in the decision?
State laws determine when your child can seek their own sexual healthcare without parental permission, but ideally children should be able to talk to their parents when making important decisions about their sexual health. We all would like to be involved in decisions that affect our health and well-being, but as a parent it your responsibility to keep your children safe and make tough decisions they aren’t able to.
Whether your child becomes sexually active at 13 or 30, the HPV vaccine is preventive measure that is intended to keep them healthy. If you truly are all about progressive parenting and feel your child should be involved in the decision, keep in mind that the HPV vaccine works best for anyone who hasn’t yet been sexually active, regardless of their age. The best thing you can do is keep the lines of communication open with your child and educate them about resources so that they are prepared to make good decisions about their sexual health with and without your guidance.
9. Is the HPV vaccine effective? Is it safe?
The HPV vaccines that are currently available are approved and regulated by the FDA. With that said, as with any medicine or medical procedure, it may take years to see any additional side effects. As of now, the only known side effect is soreness at the site of injection.
10. Can I afford the HPV vaccine?
The Gardasil vaccine is currently on the market for $120 for a single-dose (keep in mind that 3 doses of the vaccine are necessary over a 6-month period for it to be effective). Many insurances cover the Gardasil vaccine which is seen as preventative care, but only for the recommended ages of 9-26. Legally, insurance carriers are not required to provide coverage for the vaccine. If you are uninsured, Merck offers a vaccine assistance program to those who cannot afford it as long as the meet certain income and residency guidelines. Unfortunately, these programs are only offered to women at this time (more than likely because women are at a higher risk of dying from HPV due to cervical cancer).
Toya Sharee is a program associate for a Philadelphia non-profit that focuses on parenting education and building healthy relationships between parents, children and co-parents. She also has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog BulletsandBlessings.