The HPV vaccine is for boys, too
You might think of the HPV vaccine as “the one that prevents cervical cancer” and assume you can safely skip it for your son.
But, in fact, boys may need the vaccine’s protection even more than girls do, says MultiCare radiation oncologist Carolyn Rutter, MD.
“The reason is that HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers (cancers involving the back of the tongue and throat) now outnumber cervical cancers,” Dr. Rutter says. “And the majority of those occur in men.”
HPV, which stands for human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Usually it’s harmless or causes nothing more than warts. But some strains can cause certain types of cancer. When the HPV vaccine was introduced in 2006, it was largely marketed as protecting against cervical cancer. But those same strains of the virus can cause deadly oral, anal and genital cancers for men and women alike.
Dr. Rutter says she recommends both boys and girls get the HPV vaccines around age 11.
“Or even as early as 9,” she says. “Because the immune system is able to develop a stronger response to the vaccine when it is given at a younger age.”
Some parents hesitate because they know HPV is sexually transmitted and they assume they can wait or that they can teach their children safer sex practices to protect them. But though we certainly know HPV can be transmitted sexually, we cannot be completely certain it isn’t transmitted other ways as well, says Dr. Rutter.
“After all, the HPV that causes cancer is just another strain of the HPV that causes warts, and most of our children have gotten warts on their hands and feet through casual contact,” she says.
And HPV is so prevalent that vaccination is the only practical way to avoid infection.
“The virus seems to just be everywhere,” Dr. Rutter says. “It turns out 90 percent of us will have an HPV infection at some point in our lives.”
And while the vast majority of those infections will result in no symptoms or nothing more serious than warts, some will inevitably lead to cancers.
“HPV-related throat cancer is now a bigger concern than cervical cancer, and we know all sorts of viruses make it into our throats all the time,” she says. “Knowing how devastating throat cancers are, I’d rather protect my children as early as possible.”
Because HPV is commonly known to be a sexually transmitted infection, some parents also worry that getting their children vaccinated might encourage them to become sexually active sooner than they might otherwise. But that hasn’t turned out to be true.
“There are now multiple studies showing that children who receive the HPV vaccine are not more likely than others to become sexually active or to start sexual activity at an earlier age,” Dr. Rutter says. “Remember, the focus really doesn’t need to be on a connection with sex. We all just want our children to be safe. In my case, I told my children they were getting ‘a shot to prevent cancer,’ and that was the end of the story.”
While HPV wasn’t part of the vaccine schedule for most parents, Dr. Rutter says it’s not new and certainly not untested.
“The HPV vaccine is now more than 10 years old and has been given to more than 250 million individuals,” she says. “It is as safe and well-tested as the other vaccines children receive at age 11.”
So while vaccines aren’t any child’s favorite part of their health care, adding the two shots to protect them from a cancer-causing virus is well worth the momentary sting for both boys and girls.
About The Author
Cheryl Reid-Simons is a freelance writer and serial community volunteer. In her spare time, she drives a private activities shuttle for her twin sons, healthy graduates of the Tacoma General NICU and interim care nursery. More stories by this author