Vaccinating My Teenage Daughter

My daughter is at an age (she’s 14) where the nurse practitioner who sees her wants to give her the HPV vaccine. I know it’s a good thing to do, but I’m a little uneasy about the message this might send. What if she’s less likely to use protection when she does have sex (hopefully that’ll be many years from now!!). I don’t want to be a prude and deny her something of value, but wow, vaccinate my baby against something you get from sex? Can you help me feel better about this? I feel guilty for not just taking the plunge and getting her the shot.

The important thing is that you are doing what all parents do: trying to make the best possible decisions about your child’s health and happiness, both now and for the future.

First, some background. HPV vaccines are recommended for use with all adolescents and young adults between the ages of 11 and 26. (HPV vaccines can actually be given as young as age nine). Why so young? The idea is to vaccinate and offer protection prior to the onset of sexual activity. Also, the vaccines generate a stronger response from the immune system of younger people, so the teen years are an ideal time to immunize against HPV.

As to your question, there is no evidence at all that young people who receive an HPV vaccine are more likely to have earlier or riskier sex. In fact, a recently published study (Bednarczyk, Pediatrics) that followed nearly 1,400 girls who were vaccinated against HPV at age 11 found –compared to girls of similar age who did not receive the vaccine- they were no more likely to engage in sex, become pregnant, or be diagnosed with an sexually transmitted infection. We often use the “seat belt” analogy here: just as wearing a seat belt won’t cause someone to suddenly drive faster or recklessly, neither will an HPV vaccine lead someone to become sexually active or be unprotected when they do.

Many parents also find that getting the HPV shot is a good time for discussions of sexually transmitted infections, and about sex in general. These discussions are a good way to share all that you’ve learned about HPV and other infections, as well as prepare your child to make healthy decisions about sex when she gets older.

By the way, the HPV vaccine is also recommended for boys. So, if you have a son, consider the vaccine for him as well.

We know that the HPV vaccine is safe for young people. Millions of doses of HPV vaccines have been safely given around the world. In some places, we are already seeing a reduction in HPV infections and in conditions associated with cervical cancer. If you want to read more, read ASHA’s HPV Vaccine FAQ.

--J. Dennis Fortenberry, MD, MS
Indiana University School of Medicine

Vaccine Safety

Are the HPV vaccines safe?

HPV vaccines have been used in many countries around the world for several years, and both vaccines appear to be safe and well tolerated. There have been some mild to moderate reactions reported from people who have received the vaccines, the most common of which is pain, redness, and swelling around where the shot was given. Other mild reactions reported include fever, headache, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. Some people have experienced fainting as well.

As with any vaccine or medication, there is always a possible of a serious problem, such allergic reaction. However, such reactions are rare and HPV vaccine continue to be monitored for any safety concerns.

Worries about safety should not keep parents from vaccinating their children! HPV vaccines are very effective in preventing diseases (like cervical cancer) related to the HPV types the vaccines cover. Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. each year develop diseases, so it’s essential that we’re using all of our prevention tools.

--The NCCC Staff