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Protecting Teens From HPV: The Vaccine And What One Parent Learned On Her Journey To Know More

Marianne Sidwell made sure her children were vaccinated—protection from serious diseases like measles, mumps, and whooping cough was important—but when she heard about the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, she wasn’t quite sure her kids needed THAT one.

“I felt different about this vaccine, not because I thought it was less valuable. I just wasn’t sure if it was necessary,” said Sidwell.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HPV encompasses a large group of viruses, and nearly all sexually active individuals will get at least one form of HPV during their lifetime. While most infections go away unnoticed, in some cases, health problems such as genital warts and certain types of cancer occur. 

Utah is one of the lowest-ranked states for adolescent HPV vaccination.

Sidwell knew that vaccinating against HPV could protect against potential health issues like most cervical cancers, but she needed more information. She just wasn’t convinced her kids needed to be immunized against an infection primarily spread through sexual contact.

“One of the turning points was talking to my doctor,” Sidwell said. “She made the comment that even if you don’t have multiple partners yourself, you have no idea if your partner has had other partners. She said it certainly doesn’t hurt anything and it’s better to be safe. I thought that made a lot of sense.”

When Sidwell, a Utah resident, learned that her state has some of the lowest HPV vaccination rates across the country, she didn’t seem too surprised.

“I really feel like [the low vaccination rates in Utah] may be due to the same thought processes I had at the time," she remarked. “Why would this be necessary? I don’t want to anticipate that my child could have multiple sexual partners in the future or that this is even going to be an issue or affect me in any way.”

A recent report led by the CDC highlighted HPV vaccination coverage across the United States. In Utah, 25% of girls and 20% of boys have completed the vaccination series. Those percentages sit well below the national averages of 42% and 28%, respectively. Dr. Alison Moriarty Daley, associate professor at Yale University School of Nursing and a spokesperson for the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, said there are a number of reasons why kids may not be getting vaccinated.

“We need to get the word out. Some people may not know about the vaccine or they may not think it’s important for their teenager to get vaccinated,” Moriarty Daley said. “We hope healthcare providers are making strong recommendations to parents about why to get vaccinated.”

It is recommended that boys and girls receive the vaccination between the ages of 11 and 12, although the vaccine can be given up to the age of 26. Many parents might argue that getting a pre-teen vaccinated for an infection associated with sexual activity seems way too young, but Dr. Moriarty Daley said there is a simple explanation.

“Vaccines work if you get them before you’re exposed to what they are protecting you against,” she said. “So when parents say, ‘My kid is not sexually active,’ my answer is, ‘Perfect, this is a great time to get the vaccine and get the maximum benefit.’”

Dr. Moriarty Daley also stressed the HPV vaccine is safe and effective.

“You can’t get HPV from the vaccine. It revs up the immune system,” she explained, “so when [the body] encounters the virus it protects against it and you don’t become infected. Like many other vaccines, the most common side effects are soreness or redness at the site of injection.”

Sidwell was slow to jump on the HPV vaccine bandwagon, but her mindset changed over time.

“My daughters were almost grown when I encouraged them to get vaccinated. They went in and did it on their own. They took the initiative and followed through. I was really proud of them,” said Sidwell. “I am hoping that’s going to be our future—that people have a more open mindset.”

Dr. Moriarty Daley thinks being informed is key.

“Talk to your healthcare providers, do your research about the vaccine, come with questions you need answered. Have a conversation with them about vaccinating your child,” she said. “This vaccine has the potential to prevent cancer related to HPV. It’s a great gift to give your child.”

Additional information: A recent update from the CDC now recommends only two doses of the vaccine, rather than three, for adolescents under 15 years old.