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What you need to know about the HPV vaccine

Is the HPV vaccine safe? When should your child get it? These and other common questions answered by pediatrician, Dr. Griffin.


By David Griffin, MD
May 29, 2018

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Concerned parents ask me daily about the safety, effectiveness and benefits of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. They’re important questions, and I want all parents to feel like they’re making the right decision for their family. Read on for more info about the vaccine.

Q: What is HPV?

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. It’s so common, in fact, that almost all sexually active people will be infected at some point in their lives if they haven’t received the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

With 79 million Americans currently infected and 14 million new cases each year, HPV affects both women and men. It causes cervical cancer, most neck and throat cancers, several other rare cancers, and even precancerous genital warts.

Q: Why do you recommend the HPV vaccine?

Because it can save lives. Every year in our country, around 24,000 women and 17,000 men are affected by HPV-related cancers. But those numbers could potentially be a lot lower if every child got vaccinated against HPV. Results from a 2018 Cochrane research study prove the vaccine is very successful in preventing HPV. In fact, HPV rates among teenage girls have declined since the vaccine came out. Plus, the side effects are minimal to none.

Q: I’ve heard of a lot of negative side effects of the HPV vaccine. What are they?

The HPV vaccine doesn’t have many side effects. The most common are warmth, swelling and some soreness at the injection spot. But this can happen with any kind of shot. Similarly, sometimes children faint after receiving shots, and they could get injured if they fall from fainting. Your clinic will have your child stay seated until they’re sure your child is OK. We always encourage parents to monitor their children and call us right away if anything seems off.

It’s important to consider the source when you hear information about the HPV and other vaccines. It’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between fact and fiction on the internet, and false or unproven stories can spread quickly.

Q: Does the vaccine prevent all types of HPV?

There are more than 150 types of HPV that we know of. Not all of them are harmful. The vaccine that’s currently available in the U.S. protects against the nine types that most commonly cause cancer and genital warts – types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58. Types 16 and 18 make up about 70 percent of all cases of cervical cancer worldwide.

Q: Why do boys need the HPV vaccine?

HPV is actually far more common in men than in women, according to a 2017 CDC report. The HPV vaccine helps prevent future infection that can lead to certain types of cancers in men.

Q: The HPV vaccine hasn’t been around very long. How do I know it’s safe and will work for my child?

The vaccine came out in 2006 for girls and 2010 for boys. It went through years of extensive testing and clinical trials to make sure it was safe and effective before the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved it. Just like all other vaccines, the CDC and FDA regularly monitor its safety and how well it’s working. And we have strong evidence to say that it is indeed working. Since its introduction, we’ve seen a 71 percent decline in HPV infections in teenage girls who received the vaccine.

Q: The vaccine is given at such a young age, usually between 11-12 years old and in some cases as young as 9. Why so young?

The vaccine is most effective when given at younger ages, when it can be done in just two doses. (The second dose is given six months after the first shot.) Plus, you can conveniently get it done at the same time as the other recommended preteen vaccines. It still works after age 12 – adults as old as 26 can receive the vaccine – but for those 13 and up, three doses are needed and it can be less effective.

It’s also best to give the HPV vaccine before children start engaging in sexual activity. I get it – this can be a really tough topic for parents. It’s not something we want to think about. But this is one more way to keep our children safe.

Q: Does the HPV vaccine promote sex at an early age?

There are studies that show the HPV vaccine isn’t linked to sexual activity at an earlier age. You can find these studies at aap.org and ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

Q: How do I explain to my child what the vaccine is for?

It depends on their maturity level and what they’ll understand. I think the easiest, most straightforward thing to say is that the vaccine will protect them from certain types of cancer and other diseases when they’re older.

Q: Would you give your own children the vaccine?

Absolutely. Only one of my four children was the right age when the vaccine came out, but she completed the series as early as it was recommended. She knew what it was for and felt as strongly as her mother and I did that it was important. My grandchildren will also receive the vaccine.

Q: If I want to know more about the HPV vaccine, where can I look?

Talk to your child’s doctor. You can also find lots of helpful information and resources at cdc.gov and aap.org.

Make an appointment to discuss the HPV vaccine with your doctor today

About David Griffin, MD

Dr. David Griffin earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard University, medical and master degrees from Stanford and completed his residency in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. He practiced pediatrics at both Park Nicollet and HealthPartners Clinics and now serves as Associate Medical Director with the HealthPartners Medical Group. Every February, Dr. Griffin and his wife accompany a mission trip to Nicaragua with MEDICO, a non-profit medical service organization. There, with a team of physicians, pediatric residents and nurses, they treat special needs children living in small, remote villages.

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