Cervical Cancer & the HPV Vaccine
One of the most important and challenging tasks parents face is communicating our values to our children (without them rolling their eyes) -- especially when talking about sex. But while these conversations can be difficult and awkward, research shows that positive and honest communication helps young people delay sexual activity and make healthier, safer decisions about sex.
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and for parents it's a perfect opportunity to start a conversation with your children about sexual health and the steps they can take to stay healthy. This month's conversation can be about the HPV vaccine, which, like regular cervical cancer screenings, is a key way to prevent cervical cancer.
HPV is the human papillomavirus, some strains of which can be transmitted through sexual activity in men and women. In fact, HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and some strains can lead to cervical cancer and genital warts. The FDA has approved two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, to safely and effectively prevent infection of the two strains of HPV that cause 70% of cervical cancer cases -- Gardasil also prevents infection of two strains that cause 90% of genital warts.
Every year, approximately 13,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and about 4,000 American women die of the disease. The HPV vaccine is a major breakthrough in the fight to prevent cervical cancer and should be considered a routine, normal part of health care.
In order to be effective, the vaccine needs to be given well before someone becomes sexually active and potentially exposed to HPV. The CDC recommends that girls and boys ages 11-12 get the HPV vaccine, but it can be administered to anyone between the ages of 9-26, regardless of sexual activity.
Given the fact that the vaccine is most effective when administered at an early age, parents need to be educated about the vaccine and talk about it with their children. Making a decision with your child to get the HPV vaccine is not a permission slip to begin having sex. Rather, it is a way to prevent disease, just like other childhood vaccinations.
A decision about the HPV vaccine can also serve as an opportunity for parents and their children to have broader conversations about values and sexual health issues. While 11- to 12-years-old may seem young for this conversation, informed adolescents with involved parents are more likely to delay sexual activity. Some suggestions for beginning the conversation:
Conversations like these aren't always easy, but talking about the HPV vaccine will be easier if you've already broached the topic of sex with your children. Parent education programs like Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts' (PPLM's) Let's Be Honest: Communication in Families that Keeps Kids Healthy and books like It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley can provide you the skills and information you need to have these ongoing conversations about sexuality.
PPLM also offers the HPV vaccine at its seven health centers across the state, as do many pediatricians' offices, and most insurance plans cover it. Contact a PPLM health center or your child's pediatrician in order to learn more about the vaccine and setting up an appointment.
Regular cervical cancer screenings and preventive care such as the HPV vaccine are the keys to combating cervical cancer. As a parent, it's in your power to help keep your children safe from cervical cancer by talking with them and their doctor about the HPV vaccine.