January 26, 2024
Ask a Doctor: What Caregivers Need to Know About the HPV Vaccine
Dr. Jessica Reggi shares everything you should know about preventing cancer with the HPV vaccine.
Every year, an estimated 36,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with a cancer caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). The HPV vaccine is the most effective way to prevent infections that can lead to these cancers later in life, especially if administered in childhood.
But how does the HPV vaccine prevent cancer? And when should children receive the vaccine? Healthier Generation’s Dr. Jessica Reggi is here to answer these questions and more.
Q: What is HPV?
Dr. Reggi: Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus primarily transmitted through skin-to-skin sexual contact. HPV infection can lead to genital warts, genital cancers, and mouth or throat cancers in all genders. It’s possible to get HPV through sexual contact with anyone who has the virus, even if they don’t have obvious signs or symptoms.
Q: How common are HPV infections?
Dr. Reggi: HPV infections are very common; the CDC states that nearly everyone will get HPV at some point in their lives. There are multiple strains (or types) of the HPV virus: some go away on their own and others stay in the body longer and can lead to cancer. The HPV vaccine protects against these cancer-causing strains of the virus.
Q: At what age should people receive the HPV vaccine?
Dr. Reggi: The CDC recommends that children receive the first dose of the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12. The HPV vaccine series is typically initiated when children visit their medical provider for a well child visit or school physical.
However, the vaccine has been approved for use as early as age 9 and as late as age 45. For those under 15, the vaccine consists of two shots, given 6 to 12 months apart. If the HPV vaccine series is initiated at age 15 or older, three doses are necessary.
Q: How can getting children vaccinated help prevent cancer?
Dr. Reggi: According to the CDC, infections with the most common cancer-causing strains of HPV and genital warts have dropped 88% among teenage girls since the HPV vaccine was introduced in 2006.
Like other childhood vaccines that protect against life-threatening diseases, such as tetanus or meningitis, children should be vaccinated against HPV before they are exposed to the virus. Because it takes 2-3 doses given months apart to achieve full protection, it’s best to begin the vaccine series well before there is risk of infection. And younger tweens and teens produce more antibodies in response to the HPV vaccine than older teens do, making it more effective to get vaccinated at the recommended ages of 11 or 12.
Q: Is the HPV vaccine safe and effective?
Dr. Reggi: The CDC states that HPV vaccination provides safe, effective, and long-lasting protection. This is based on more than 15 years of data. The HPV vaccine does not cause HPV infection or cancer, and does not cause infertility. Multiple studies have also found no increase in unsafe sex behaviors among teens who had received the HPV vaccine.
Q: Why should all youth receive the HPV vaccine?
Dr. Reggi: The HPV vaccine is essential cancer prevention for everyone. HPV infection can lead to cancers of the mouth, throat, and sex organs, so it is important that all genders get vaccinated.
As parents and caregivers, the health and safety of our children is of the utmost importance. The HPV vaccine is a safe and effective way to protect our children from cancer-causing infections. I have two daughters and they will both be getting vaccinated at the recommended age!
Q: Where can we learn more about the HPV vaccine?
Dr. Reggi: Use this interactive tool to learn more about HPV and the HPV vaccine series, and discuss any questions or concerns with your child’s medical provider. I would also encourage you to read one mother’s story about cervical cancer.
Thank you, Dr. Reggi! Learn more about childhood vaccinations and download resources for families at Healthier Generation’s Vaccine Resource Hub.