The vaccine every teenager needs

Odds are, you or someone you know has been infected with human papillomavirus, or HPV. It’s the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the US, infecting more than 79 million Americans. More than 14 million people, including teens, become infected with HPV each year. HPV is also responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer diagnoses, and can also be responsible for throat, penile and rectal cancer.

The good news is there’s a vaccine that prevents infection from the most common strains of HPV — and the vaccine is really good at what it does.

Q: Why should my child get the HPV vaccine?
As a physician trained in adolescent medicine, I often see teens and young adults who are devastated to learn they have HPV because they’ve always used protection. What they often don’t know is that HPV can be transmitted through any type of intimate sexual contact. You don’t have to have intercourse to become infected. If infected skin touches skin, the virus can spread. That’s why this particular vaccine is such an important way to prevent HPV.

Another sobering reminder: According to the 2013 Oregon Healthy Teens Survey, 45.2 percent of 11th grade students have had sex, and of those only 29.1 percent reported using condoms (which are important, but unable to prevent all HPV infections). While you can encourage your teen to make smart choices, at the end of the day, they’re going to make their own decisions. What you can do is ensure they complete the HPV vaccine series of three shots before they’re exposed to the virus.

Q: When should my child get the vaccine?
The HPV vaccine must be given before exposure to the virus in order to work. That’s why I recommend giving the vaccine to teen girls and boys (yep, teen boys catch and spread HPV, too) typically starting at age 11, but even as young as age 9. That may seem young to some parents, but remember, this vaccine protects against cancers and other diseases caused by HPV. The vaccine is given in three shots over six months and it is critical that your child get all three doses. If your child is behind or off schedule, we recommend completing the vaccine series. The HPV vaccine is safe and effective and, like all vaccines, undergoes extensive safety testing.

As parents, we want the best for our kids. Knowing that you can help prevent your teen from possibly getting cancer in the future, why wouldn’t you want to get him or her vaccinated? Talk to your teen and his or her doctor about HPV prevention. Click here for more information on HPV.


Jennifer Edman, M.D., M.P.H.
Women’s Primary Care
Assistant Professor of Family Medicine
OHSU Center for Women’s Health

4 responses to “The vaccine every teenager needs

  1. I love the article, what happens if your child had a allergic reaction to the first HPV dose. Do you try again or is there an alternative?

  2. Thank you for your question regarding allergic reactions to the HPV vaccine. I recommend that you discuss any reaction to the vaccine with your child’s physician in order to best determine if your child can continue to receive the vaccine series.

    If an individual experiences a severe allergic reaction to a dose of the HPV vaccine I would not recommend further doses of the vaccine without evaluation by an allergist.

    Many individuals experience mild to moderate reactions to the vaccine that are self-limited. This type of reaction is common and does not prevent continuation of the vaccine series. In addition, if an individual experiences an allergic reaction to a component of one type HPV vaccine, they may be able to tolerate another brand of HPV vaccine as the formulations are slightly different.

    Dr. Edman
    Jennifer Edman, M.D., M.P.H.
    Women’s Primary Care
    Assistant Professor of Family Medicine
    OHSU Center for Women’s Health

  3. Hi there

    I read some research not so long ago, indicating that the HPV vaccine only provides protection from 2 strains which cause cervical cancer, and there are over a dozen known ones. The research also indicated that those who had taken the vaccine were not only not protected from those other strains, but that their risk factor for getting cervical cancer from those strains actually went up.

    Do you know anything about this?

    Also, how does this vaccine compare to others with regard to toxicity levels, immune-suppressive and other long-term effects. Is there sufficient research in this area?


    1. Thanks for your question regarding the vaccine’s risk factors and long-term effects. Here’s Dr. Edman’s response:

      Gardasil and Cervarix (the two vaccines currently available to patients) protect against the two most common high risk HPV types: HPV 16 and HPV 18. Gardasil 9 was recently introduced and protects against the same two common types (HPV 16 and 18) and seven others. The HPV vaccines are very good at preventing HPV infections, especially when received before exposure to those types. The vaccines don’t treat an existing HPV infection and don’t prevent infection from other types of HPV, but are designed to cover the most common ones. Getting vaccinated with an HPV vaccine doesn’t increase one’s risk for cervical cancer.

      The HPV vaccines are safe and have been extensively studied in clinical trials involving thousands of women before being approved by the FDA. Vaccine safety is continually monitored in the United States. As can happen with healthy teens and young adults as a reaction to pain with any immunization, some people faint after receiving this vaccine. So the only change in safety recommendations for the HPV vaccines has been to recommend measures to prevent falls or injuries due to fainting after receiving the vaccine. The CDC website has excellent information available about vaccine safety and vaccine development if you would like further information.

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