Getting the Job Done: Understanding the HPV Vaccine

Nearly every day, I ask my kids, “What’s my job?”

They are trained to reply (these days with rolled eyeballs), “To keep me safe and healthy.”

With those two tasks, I can rationalize just about anything I need or want them to do.  But, it’s also honest. At the core, that is my job.

Those two key responsibilities are why I shake my head at the New York Times article, “The Underused HPV Vaccine,” from August 2016. 

Underused? Really?! Coming off January’s Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, it seems that many parents still question the necessity of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.  Maybe there isn’t enough information about what HPV is and its connection to cancer.  Maybe some parents are wary of new vaccines. It’s also likely that some people get hung up on how HPV spreads (sex) and can’t bear the thought of their child doing that day. Perfectly understandable!  But, the truth is, your kids will have sex someday.  Not now, but someday.  This vaccine proves its worth, later, when your now-adult child avoids infection.  Let’s break down the stats from people on the front lines.

What is HPV?

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that is as prevalent as the common cold.  Almost all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. It is passed through vaginal, oral, or anal sex, even when the infected person has no symptoms.  Hence, the reason it is so common. In many cases, an HPV infection goes away on its own. Other times, it causes genital warts or cancer.

HPV causes 90% of all cervical cancers, as well as most cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, penis and oropharynx (which includes the back of the throat, base of the tongue and tonsils). The CDC reports an increase in HPV-related cancers in recent years. Nearly 60% of new cases were cervical cancer in women.  Men were largely diagnosed with oral cancer related to HPV.

“It’s not about sex. It’s about cancer and cancer prevention.”

– Dr. Dean Blumberg, UC Davis Children’s Hospital

The HPV vaccine

This vaccine prevents HPV infection, thus protecting against the cancer it causes. The CDC reports that each year, about 14 million Americans become infected with HPV.  Most of them are teenagers or young adults. HPV-related cancer is diagnosed in an estimated 17,600 women and 9,300 men.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just released its 2017 vaccination recommendations.  The HPV vaccine is at the top of its list. The vaccine works best before exposure to infection.  The new recommendation is a two-dose schedule for girls and boys, between the ages of 9 to 14.

“In the past several years, studies have shown the vaccine is even more effective than expected,” notes Debbie Saslow, senior director of HPV-Related and Women’s Cancers at the American Cancer Society (ACS).

“This new two-dose regimen is easier to follow, and we now know is very effective in preventing HPV, which is linked to a half dozen types of cancer,” she notes in the ACS news release.

Both the ACS and the CDC still recommend three doses of the HPV vaccine for young adults who were not immunized as adolescents. The vaccine may be given to women through age 26 and men through age 21.

What the doctors say

In an interview with Yahoo Beauty, Dr. Lauren Streicher, M.D., associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, agrees that this vaccine is widely underutilized.  “It blows my mind that we have a vaccine to prevent this cancer and there’s any question about getting the vaccine,” Streicher says.

Yet, the vaccination rates show that parents either question it or their doctors are not recommending it.  The CDC reports that in 2014, 40% of teen girls and 60% of teen boys had not received even one dose of the HPV vaccine.

Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the UC Davis Children’s Hospital sums it up perfectly for The Sacramento Bee, “It’s not about sex. It’s about cancer and cancer prevention.”

Indeed, many of the positive strides in cancer research recently surround prevention.  Ten years of scientific data support the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine (with minimal side effects to boot).  At the end of the day, it’s about doing everything possible to keep our kids safe and healthy.

Below Your Belt lives and breathes adolescent health issues, specifically pelvic health education.  Join our conversation and check out our book, Below Your Belt: How to be Queen of Your Pelvic Region to learn more about HPV and everything else pelvic health.


Jill Grech learned more than she ever wanted about pelvic health after having three babies within three years. Still navigating those highs and lows of motherhood, she’s an inbound marketing consultant providing written content, search engine marketing and optimization, and digital ad strategy and management to small businesses and nonprofits in Chicago.