Pediatricians recommend new HPV vaccine for 11-year-olds
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the U.S. – and it’s not just for girls.
Experts now recommend that all preteens get an improved HPV vaccine called 9vHPV. Children with a history of sexual abuse should get vaccinated at age 9. The immunization schedule is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
About 79 million Americans currently are infected with the virus.
“Over 80% of sexually active women and men will have HPV at some point. That is a staggering statistic,” said Kathryn Rudman, MD, a pediatrician with Seaside Pediatrics in West Yarmouth. “At the current rate, everyone will get it,”
Virus is the Leading Cause of Many Cancers
HPV has no cure and is passed through intercourse, oral sex and anal sex. The majority of people who carry the virus will never experience symptoms, since the body fights off most infections naturally.
HPV that does not go away, however, can cause serious health issues, including genital warts and several cancers. Approximately 17,500 women and 9,300 men are affected by such cancers each year, according to the CDC.
“These are cancers that can cause death,” Dr. Rudman cautioned.
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Young people between 15 and 24 are particularly susceptible to HPV and represent half of all new cases. That is why pediatricians advise girls and boys to get vaccinated at 11 and 12, before they may be exposed. The vaccine is also recommended for:
- Females up to age 27 and males up to age 22 who were not vaccinated earlier
- Males up to age 27 who have sex with other men or who have weakened immune systems
- Children age 9 and older who have been exposed to sexual abuse or sexual assault
The CDC also recommends the new 9vHPV vaccine (marketed as Gardasil-9), which blocks against nine strains of HPV and 90 percent of HPV-related cancers. People who already received an earlier vaccine, including 4vHPV and 2vHPV, do not need to be revaccinated.
Physicians Address the Barriers to Vaccination
Health officials are alarmed by the low HPV vaccination rates nationwide. Although the Food and Drug Administration approved the HPV vaccine in 2009, only about 40 percent of American teenage girls and 22 percent of teenage boys got vaccinated in 2014, according to the CDC.
Dr. Rudman understands that talking or thinking about a child’s future sexual activity can make parents uncomfortable. However, the science is clear on HPV risks and prevention. Her discussions with parents and patients cover these points:
- Vaccinate early. “The body mounts a better antibody response at a younger age. It takes time to build up immunity.” Dr. Rudman said. Children also need three doses of the vaccine for full protection.
- The vaccine is not a “license to have sex.” The HPV vaccine does not lead to changes in sexual behaviors among adolescents, as Pediatrics reports.
- Even people who abstain from sex before marriage should get vaccinated. “If your only lifetime sexual partner has HPV and you’re not vaccinated, you’ll get it, too,” Dr. Rudman said.
- Vaccination protects against exposure through nonconsensual sexual contact, including sexual abuse or date rape.
Parents who understand the dangers firsthand usually don’t need convincing, Dr. Rudman said.
“The mothers who can’t wait to have their children vaccinated are the ones who had cervical cancer and maybe had smaller families than they would have liked because they had a hysterectomy,” she said.
The vaccine does not protect against all cancers, so the usual preventive measures and screenings apply. All women 21 through 65 should get annual screenings for cervical cancer. People who are sexually active should reduce their risk for contracting HPV (or any other STI) by consistently and correctly using latex barriers like condoms and dental dams.
“Abstinence is also something that many teenagers are choosing, and that is the ultimate protection,” Dr. Rudman said.
“I encourage parents to have ongoing discussions with their children. Research shows kids whose parents talk to them about sex are less likely to make poor decisions.”