Weekly challenge: parents need to get over their fear of the HPV vaccine

I promised myself that I would get my teenage daughter vaccinated against the cervical-cancer causing human papillomavirus before she graduates from high school this year. And my two younger teenage sons are going to get the HPV vaccines at their next doctor’s appointment.

My initial hesitation against getting my daughter vaccinated years ago—which I wrote about extensively—stemmed from a combination of factors: she was young and years away from having to worry about a sexually transmitted disease like HPV; the vaccine was new; there were unknowns when it came to its safety profile since it hadn’t yet been administered to millions of people.

Now, though, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed that the HPV vaccine is very safe, with few side effects. The most common ones include fainting after the shot—which can be minimized by having teens lie down when the shots are administered—pain and redness at the injection site, nausea, headache, and dizziness.

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Many parents, however, are still concerned about the vaccine’s safety risks, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, which could explain why only 32 percent of American teens have received the full series of three shots.

Vaccine researchers analyzed national surveys conducted by the government on why parents skip certain vaccinations in their children and found that, for HPV, concerns about safety and side effects were responsible 16 percent of the time for vaccine refusal in 2010 compared to less than 8 percent of the time in 2009 and less than 5 percent of the time in 2008. While the most common reason for avoiding the vaccine was because parents thought it wasn’t needed or necessary—which is typical for other vaccines—parents were more scared about safety risks from HPV than from other vaccines, according to the surveys.

On the other side of the coin, I think parents aren’t scared enough of the cancers that HPV can cause. Cervical cancer deaths have dropped drastically over the decades thanks to the success of Pap smears and HPV testing to screen for lesions before they become cancerous. Many parents, however, aren’t aware that HPV can cause a host of other cancers that have no early detection device to find them. HPV-related throat cancers have sky-rocketed in recent years and so have HPV-related anal cancers, which killed Farah Fawcett. The vaccine protects against strains responsible for most of these cancers.

If you’re a parent of a teen who hasn’t been vaccinated against HPV, I urge you this week to read up on the pro’s and con’s of this vaccine and consider making an appointment with your child’s pediatrician to get the immunization; you’ll also need to make two more appointments to get the follow-up shots that are needed spaced a few months apart.

The vaccine is recommended for girls and boys aged 11 or 12 years and is also recommended for teen boys and girls who did not get the vaccine when they were younger, teen girls and young women through age 26, as well as teen boys and young men through age 21, according to the CDC.