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If there were an easy way to prevent cancer, you’d predict that people would run in droves to take advantage of it.  That’s why people should be rushing to take advantage of the cancer-preventing human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

The HPV vaccine helps protect against the infection that can cause genital warts and cervical, anal, penis, and throat cancers.  Yet only 35 percent of girls and one percent of boys have received all three doses of the vaccine needed for complete protection.

Now, a recent study in the journal of AIDS provides even more compelling evidence in favor of this vaccine, finding that the risk of HIV doubles in women infected with HPV, and that there is a similar association in men.  The findings suggest that the HPV vaccine may reduce the incidence of HIV, in addition to preventing cervical and other cancers.

There are more than six million new HPV infections each year, and three out of four people will acquire this sexually transmitted infection at some point in their lives.  While most infections usually go away on their own, some HPV strains can cause cancer.  Given in three separate injections over six months, the vaccine protects against the four most common HPV strains that cause 70 percent of all cervical cancer and 90 percent of all genital warts.  That’s pretty revolutionary.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended the HPV vaccine for both girls and boys at age 11 or 12, because this is the age at which the vaccine produces the best immune response in the body, and because it’s important to protect them well before the onset of sexual activity.

It is hard to think about teens becoming sexually active, so too many parents are skipping this vaccine.  But as parents, we can’t let discomfort rule our decisions when it comes to doing what’s in our children’s best interest, and vaccinating them before they become sexually active provides the best protection from the most dangerous strains of HPV.  Parents can and should protect their preteens.  Health care providers must also play a role in encouraging parents to give their kids the HPV vaccine.

Since vaccinating our children against HPV is one of the most effective things that parents can do for the health of our daughters and sons, I’d like to address some questions and concerns that parents frequently have:

Q:  Will giving my child the vaccine give him/her permission to have sex?

A:  No, prevention does not promote sexual activity.  A vaccine to prevent cancer and genital warts will not cause young people to have sex any more than an umbrella causes rain or seatbelts cause accidents.

Q: Does it cost a lot?

A: Many health insurance companies cover the HPV vaccines, and there are also programs that allow some people who are uninsured or have Medicaid to get a vaccine for low or no cost.  You can talk with your health care provider to get more information about these programs.  Many Planned Parenthood health centers offer the vaccine.  Click here to find the health center closest to you, and contact them to see if they offer the HPV vaccine.

Q: Is the vaccine safe?

A: Studies show that the HPV vaccine is extremely safe.  The American Academy of Pediatrics notes: “Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record."

Q: Does it make sense to vaccinate teens?

A: Yes. It’s recommended that children get the HPV vaccine when they’re 11 or 12 for maximum effectiveness, but for teens or young adults, the vaccine will still offer some protection against HPV and cancers associated with HPV.  The vaccine is routinely given up to age 26, and some studies have shown it to have some beneficial effect even after 26.  But the closer to age 11 or 12, the better.

Cervical cancer remains a critical public health challenge and a life-threatening disease.  But it’s also one that we can prevent with three little shots.

Leslie Kantor is the vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. You can find her on Twitter at @LeslieKantor.

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