What Parents and Caregivers Should Know about HPV Vaccination

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Back to school is a perfect time to make sure kids are immunized against HPV and other vaccine-preventable illnesses

HPV vaccination is cancer prevention

The pandemic created challenges for families scheduling routine childhood vaccinations. “August is when many kids go back to school, as well as National Immunization Awareness Month. Now's the time to get caught up on HPV [human papillomavirus] vaccinations,” says Heather Brandt, PhD, director of the HPV Cancer Prevention Program at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

HPV can cause six types of cancer, including oral, cervical, vaginal, anal and penile cancer. It results in more than 36,000 cases of cancer each year in the United States. Yet, vaccination prevents 90% of HPV cancers when given starting at age 9.

“As parents make back-to-school doctors’ appointments, we want to make sure they prioritize HPV vaccination,” Brandt says. “HPV vaccination is safe and provides long-lasting protection.”

A Simple Way to Prevent Cancer

Brandt helped launch "Path to a Bright Future," a campaign that encourages on-time HPV vaccination for 9–12-year-olds and supports equitable administration of HPV vaccination for all. She works alongside other advocates such as Jason Mendelsohn, an HPV oropharyngeal cancer survivor and a Head and Neck Cancer Alliance executive board member.

“As a father of three and a HPV cancer survivor, I want to help other parents feel comfortable about vaccinating their children against HPV as early as age 9 to protect against HPV cancers,” Mendelsohn says. “If there was a vaccine that could protect your daughters from breast cancer or your sons from prostate cancer, you'd give it. We have a vaccine that will protect your children for a lifetime from HPV cancers.”

At age 44, Mendelsohn was diagnosed with HPV tonsil cancer. A bump on his neck was the only symptom.

“No one is ever prepared for cancer,” he recalls. I had a radical tonsillectomy, neck dissection, 7 weeks of chemo, radiation and a feeding tube. But this is a preventable cancer, and there is a vaccine that can protect millions of people from living the reality I had to endure. As parents, we should be making sure every eligible child is vaccinated against HPV.”

A non-St. Jude study published in the International Journal of Gynecological Cancer in August 2022 shows rates of advanced cervical cancer rose by 1.5% each year 2001-2018. “We know HPV vaccination can prevent almost all cervical cancers,” Brandt says. “Cervical cancer screening is important and should be a priority. We all must work to prevent cervical and the five other types of cancers linked to HPV by getting vaccinated against HPV.

Ages and Dosage

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination for everyone through age 26. HPV vaccination is given as a series of either two or three doses, depending on age at initial vaccination.

“Two doses of HPV vaccine are recommended for most persons starting the series before their 15th birthday,” Brandt says. “Three doses are recommended for those who start the series at ages 15 through 26 and for immunocompromised persons. Keep in mind that HPV vaccination prevents new HPV infections but does not treat existing HPV infections or diseases. HPV vaccination works best when given before any exposure to HPV.”

Vaccine Hesitancy and Myths

“Vaccination hesitancy threatens to reverse progress made over the years in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases,” Brandt says. “In fact, the World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy as one of the world’s top 10 global health threats in 2019.”

There are many myths about HPV vaccines that are untrue and undermine confidence in vaccination. Brandt provides some clarity:

  • HPV vaccination is cancer prevention, and early vaccination protects best. It’s important to get vaccinated before being exposed to prevent certain cancers as an adult.
  • HPV vaccines don’t cause fertility problems. There is no evidence linking HPV vaccination and infertility.
  • Boys and men should get vaccinated against HPV infections. It can cause cancers in males, specifically oral or throat, anal and penile cancers.
  • HPV vaccination is safe and doesn’t contribute to serious health issues. Like any vaccination, there may be mild side effects, such as pain or redness where the vaccination was given.
  • HPV vaccines have been approved for use in the U.S. since 2006. More than 16 years of safety and monitoring data have shown HPV vaccination is safe and effective.
  • The HPV vaccine can be administered at the same time as other vaccines. For children ages 11-12, the vaccine is routinely recommended for adolescents along with vaccines for whopping cough and meningitis. However, HPV vaccination can be given beginning at age 9.
  • Disparities exist in HPV vaccination rates—by state, rural areas, race or ethnicity, and insurance status. HPV vaccination is cancer prevention for all. It's important to offer equitable access to HPV vaccination.

Bottom Line

“Adulthood may seem like a long way off for a 9-year-old,” Brandt says. “But a moment of protection today with HPV vaccination will provide a lifetime of protection against HPV cancers as an adult. Make sure HPV vaccination is on your back-to-school list.”

Learn about the Path to a Bright Future campaign, and pledge to protect your child today.

About the author

Carrie Strehlau is a senior social media specialist in the Department of Strategic Communication, Education and Outreach.

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