If you could vaccinate your child to prevent cancer, you would, right? That’s exactly what the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine offers. I spoke to Independence Medical Director and board-certified pediatrician Dr. Anna Baldino about the lifesaving HPV vaccine, which has the power to prevent nearly 40,000 cancers a year in the U.S.
Why get the HPV vaccine for your child?
Dr. Baldino: Purely and simply, it has been shown to prevent HPV-related cancers. And the protection children receive from the vaccine will protect them through adulthood.
Most HPV infections go away by themselves within two years, and not everybody who gets an HPV infection will develop cancer. But sometimes HPV infections will last longer and can cause certain cancers or other diseases.
When should children get their first dose of the HPV vaccine?
Dr. Baldino: The American Academy of Pediatrics has asked pediatricians to offer the HPV vaccine during a child’s 11- or 12-year wellness checkup. For the vaccine to be most effective, the HPV series should be given prior to exposure to HPV.
How many doses are needed to complete the vaccine?
Dr. Baldino: As of today, only two doses of the HPV vaccine are needed if your child gets immunized before 15 years of age. The beauty of this vaccine is that if children receive it when they’re young enough, their immune system mounts a superb response with just two doses of the vaccine, separated by six months.
On the other hand, if you wait to give it to your son or daughter when they’re 15 or older, they will need three doses of the vaccine to build that same army of protection. Be sure to keep documentation of your child’s vaccines to ensure that you keep to the schedule and don’t need to repeat doses.
Is the HPV vaccine appropriate for both girls and boys?
Dr. Baldino: Yes, it is recommended that both boys and girls receive the HPV vaccine. When the HPV vaccine was first introduced in 2006, it was only targeted to girls. However, after four more years of research, it was determined to benefit boys as well.
How is HPV transmitted?
Dr. Baldino: HPV is transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact.
Why vaccinate children against a sexually-transmitted disease?
Dr. Baldino: HPV may start as a sexually-transmitted disease, but certain types of HPV can lead to cancer. Vaccinating children when they’re young protects them into adulthood — when the cancers caused by HPV typically emerge.
Some parents are concerned that it may signal to their child that they’re now allowed to engage in sexual activity. From experience, I can tell you that 99.9 percent of kids who get the HPV vaccine aren’t paying attention to what type of vaccine they are receiving.
Should adults get the HPV vaccine if they did not get it when they were children?
Dr. Baldino: The vaccine is more effective the earlier a person receives it. Doctors believe the public health benefit of HPV vaccination for adults age 27 and older is minimal. However, adults age 27 to 45 years old who have never received the HPV vaccine can talk to their doctor about their risks for HPV infection and if they may benefit from receiving the vaccine.
What types of cancers are caused by HPV?
Dr. Baldino: Certain types of HPV infections can cause cervical, vaginal, rectal, penile, or oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) cancers. The HPV vaccine targets these types.
Does the HPV vaccine cause side effects?
Dr. Baldino: Your child may get the typical arm tenderness, swelling, or a low-grade fever. More severe side effects are very rare.
This vaccine has been in use for 13 years, and its safety has been well-documented and studied. I don’t see any risk from the HPV vaccine. I see it as a real big positive. Look out for future local initiatives to encourage families to get their kids vaccinated. Because we see the statistics, and it’s working. We’re preventing cancers.
Dr. Anna Baldino is a board-certified pediatrician. She graduated from Drexel University with a B.S. in Nutrition Science, and from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine with a Doctor of Osteopathy degree. She completed her pediatric residency at the UMDNJ-Osteopathic School of Medicine. Before joining Independence Blue Cross as a Medical Director in 2004, she was an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, UMDNJ Department of Pediatrics. As part of her duties, she provided medical care to migrant worker children, to children at the local health departments, and to a local school district. Dr. Baldino is a fellow of the AAP and ACOP.