There’s been a lot of talk regarding vaccines on the market protecting against Human Papillomavirus (HPV). But is the vaccine really necessary? Is the vaccine safe? What’s the reality of the situation?

The truth is that the threat HPV poses is real. According to Jason Terk, M.D., a Cook Children’s pediatrician, genital HPV will affect 80 percent of Americans at some point in their lifetime, with most infections occurring in teens or young adults.

The Issue
HPV is the number one sexually transmitted infection, but the symptoms often go unnoticed. Usually, the only obvious sign of infection is when genital warts appear. Many infections can fester silently for as long as 15 years without any symptoms, causing growth of cancerous lesions on the cervix, genitals, or anus, forever changing the infected person’s life. There are even head and neck cancers that are now recognized to be associated with HPV infection.

There are more than 100 strains of HPV, but the most commonly discussed are 16 and 18, responsible for at least 70 percent of cervical cancer. But, HPV isn’t something only women should be aware of. Other strains, like 6 and 11, are responsible for 90 percent of genital warts. Both men and women face the risk of genital and anal cancers.

The Vaccine
Since there isn’t a cure for HPV, prevention of infection is the only way to dramatically reduce a potentially life threatening risk. Doctors recommend the vaccine, a series of three shots over a period of six months, for 11 to 26 year olds. The average age for beginning sexual activity is 17 years, and the human body will most likely develop a strong immunity if the vaccine is given in childhood. It’s important to also keep in mind that HPV can be transmitted through skin to skin contact, and that sexual intercourse isn’t necessary to spread the infection.

“The vaccine creates an antibody response which will prevent infection if exposed to the virus,” Dr. Terk said. “The vaccine won’t protect us unless it is given before infection occurs which is why we recommend it for pre-sexual tweens and teens.”

Despite some of the negative press, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports side effects to be mild and include muscle soreness, headache, nausea, fever or fainting after the injection. And, the vaccine performs very well at protecting against this serious infection.

Protecting Yourself
Women should also visit their gynecologist for their annual pap test by age 21 (or within 2 years following sexual debut), where doctors can test cervical cells for any abnormalities. This simple check-up can be life-saving. “The infection takes several years to progress to a cancerous lesion, but some treatments can cause difficult, unwanted side effects, like fertility problems,” Dr. Terk said. “Staying on top of your health can be simple and could make all the difference for your family.”

Talk to Your Child

While it may be uncomfortable, it’s important that you talk with your child about sexuality and the risks of all STIs. If they do choose to engage in sexual activity, it’s important that they understand the need to protect themselves, and that cancer could be a potential consequence years down the road. It may be a challenging topic, but it’s another part of responsible parenting and it could make all the difference.

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