Initiating the vaccine series for the human papilloma virus (HPV) by age 11 or 12 is recommended, although many parents balk at a vaccine to prevent a sexually transmitted virus at this tenderly perceived age because, “12 year olds shouldn’t be having sex” or better yet, “My 12-year-old won’t be having sex.” (Just to recap, HPV is the sexually transmitted virus that causes genital warts, pre-cancers and cancers of the vulva, vagina, cervix, and anus, as well as pre-cancers and cancers of the mouth and throat).
Let’s get the facts on the table. The latest data from the Youth Risk Surveillance Report (a validated national survey ongoing since 1991, so don’t bitch about the method, and BTW something I’m proud to pay for with my tax dollars) indicates that 6.2% of high school students had sexual intercourse for the first time before age 13 years (9.0% of boys and 3.4% of girls), and the rate hasn’t changed much over the past 10 years (see the charts at the end of this post for the breakdown of boys versus girls over the past 20 years).
And this data doesn’t include oral sex, which is also an effective way to transmit HPV. Studies tell us that 20% of kids in grade 9 have participated in oral sex.
The HPV vaccine is safe (no serious adverse events attributable to the vaccine in a study of over 44,000 vaccine recipients), doesn’t encourage risky sexual behavior, and produces effective protection against the human papilloma virus for at least 10 years (Rowhani-Rahbar A et. al. Vaccine 2009). It is also most effective when the vaccine series is completed before exposure to the HPV virus.
Now consider the percentage of kids initiating intercourse and/or oral sex by grade 9 and the fact that almost half of high school students have had intercourse at least once and 15.3% have had intercourse with four or more partners. This translates into approximately 30% of young women being infected with HPV during high school and by the time they graduate from college that number jumps to 70% (Ho et al, NEJM).
If everyone had protective antibodies from the age of 12 to 22 this just wouldn’t be the case.
Whether your daughter or son initiates sexual activity early and engages in risky behavior is related to many factors including the accuracy of the information they have about sex and safe sex, the relationships modeled in their home, peer groups, self-esteem, depression, and involvement with drugs and alcohol. All the HPV vaccine does is reduce their risk of being in that very high percentage who will be infected with the virus by the age of 22 and reduce their risk of pre-cancers, cancers, and genital warts. It’s just hard to see how that’s a bad thing.