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The HPV vaccine: it's about cancer, not sex

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  March 1, 2012 12:24 PM

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Of all the vaccines I give, the one that brings up the most questions and concerns is the HPV vaccine, the one we give to protect against human papilloma virus. Parents look at me funny when I bring it up. Many of them don’t really want to talk about it. They want to put it off. They want to change the subject.

I think that what gives them the heebie-jeebies is that you usually catch HPV from sex. It’s the most common sexually transmitted disease, actually. At least 50 percent of sexually active men and women will have HPV at some point in their lives.

But this vaccine isn’t about sex. It’s about cancer.

HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer. While most people who get HPV recover completely, when it hangs around it causes not only cervical cancer but cancers of the mouth, anus, and penis (it also causes genital warts). Every year HPV is responsible for 15,000 cases of cancer in women and 7,000 in men. That’s why we want to give this vaccine. We’ve been giving it to girls for a while now, or at least trying to -- according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, only about a third of girls who should get the vaccine are getting it. Last October the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that boys get it too, both to prevent cancer in them and to prevent them from giving it to girls; the AAP joined in the recommendation this week.

My child is too young, parents say when I start talking to them at the 11-year checkup. Maybe later.

Yes, your child is young, I say to them. It’s not that we’re saying that your 11-year-old is having sex or planning to start soon. It’s exactly because we have time before they start that we want to do this. It works best now (it literally does show the best response between the ages of 9 and 15), and we want to give it before they are exposed to HPV.

They look at me unconvinced. Maybe later.

I get it. I’m a parent, too, and I don’t like thinking about my kids having sex. It’s too hard and strange to think about that. I’d like to be a grandparent some day, so it will have to happen, but I’m fine if it happens when they are around 30. The idea of them having sex in their teens weirds me out, I’m with you.

But here’s the thing. By senior year in high school, two-thirds of kids have had sex. And some of them start much earlier than senior year. Lots of those kids have parents who spend lots of time explaining why they shouldn’t have sex and who are very strict about dating and curfews -- and lots of those parents have no idea what is going on. This is a simple reality of adolescence (just try to tell me you didn’t keep any secrets from your parents at that age) and parenthood -- and of life. Sexuality is part of life. As parents, we like to think that we can know and control everything about our kids, including when they will start having sex. We like to think that we can protect them and shelter them from everything, but the truth is that we can’t. We can teach them and prepare them and imbue them with our values, but ultimately their lives are theirs.

But this vaccine isn’t about giving up and essentially encouraging kids to have sex. It’s about cancer. Whether your child has sex at 12 or waits until 30, this vaccine can help prevent him or her from getting cancer or causing cancer in someone else. That’s pretty great, if you think about it. Imagine if there were a vaccine against breast cancer -- you’d want your child to get that, right?

So please do think about it. Read the information on the CDC’s website. Talk to your doctor. Don’t miss a chance to prevent cancer in your child.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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