What parents need to know

In general, the sooner teens and pre-teens get vaccinated, the better.

“It is critical for parents to understand that to protect children from HPV infection, and girls from potential cervical cancer later in life, that their child needs to be vaccinated prior to any exposure to HPV, thus any sexual contact,” Leifer said. “While pre-teens may not be sexually active yet, they need to get vaccinated now.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, HPV is so widespread that the majority of sexually active people will contract one or more strains in their lifetime.

HPV infections can go undetected or present themselves as genital warts.

HPV can lead to associated cancers for women, including cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal, and oropharyngeal cancers.

For men, HPV can lead to anal, penile, and oropharyngeal cancers.

Concerns about sexual conduct

Despite the effectiveness of the 4-valent and 9-valent HPV vaccine types, vaccine rates in the United States remain low compared to other countries, such as Australia.

“There is a passive resistance [when it comes to vaccinating boys] and more vocal concern that the vaccine would promote sexual promiscuity, which I find ridiculous,” Dr. Nanette Santoro, a professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, told Healthline.

Parental concerns about sexual conduct in many cases trump concerns over risks of HPV and associated cancers.

“It is easy for parents to say their child does not need the HPV vaccine because s/he is not sexually active yet, or will abstain from sexual activity,” Leifer said.

“However, the reality is that not all sexual contact is consensual, and individuals can contract HPV even when entering a monogamous relationship because their partner may have been exposed. Therefore, all adolescents should receive the HPV vaccine,” she said.

Leifer adds there’s an important question every parent should ask themselves.

“If there were a vaccine against breast cancer, don’t you think women would line up to get it? This vaccine prevents HPV, which is known to cause cervical cancer. Vaccinating girls should be a no-brainer,” she said.

Protecting the next generation

“I have always thought [the vaccine] should be routine. There are data that it prevents cancers, and that’s enough for me,” Santoro said.

Leifer shares similar sentiments, followed with the concern that because of the vaccine’s stigma of being associated with a sexually transmitted disease, even if it were part of routine immunizations, she suspects many parents would request exemption.

So, how do we get parents to consent to the vaccine?

Researchers are working to determine the best method of breaking this barrier to eliminating HPV and associated cancers.

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In a recent national study regarding messaging on HPV, it was found most effective to discuss the possibilities of cancer prevention as well as the safety and side effects.

Researchers also suggest healthcare providers discuss any concerns in greater detail with parents.

After all, experts say, the more information parents have about the effectiveness and safety of the HPV vaccine, the more it makes sense to immunize their child.

This targeted type of messaging will help decrease stigma and increase understanding about the importance of HPV vaccination in the community setting.

The bottom line

A recent study found that the HPV vaccine is effective in preventing pre-teens and teens from contracting it.

Experts say the vaccine can also provide “herd immunity” by reducing HPV transmission in a community and lowering the risk for teens who aren’t vaccinated.

Studies have shown some parents are reluctant to have their children immunized, because they fear it will encourage sexual activity.

But experts say that notion isn’t true. They add the lower risk of contracting HPV, which can cause numerous types of cancer, is worth the risk of sexual activity.