In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask our experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics. In our January-February 2011 issue, we gave WebMD lead medical editor Bruni Nazario, MD, a question about HPV vaccines for girls.
Q: I'm just not sure about giving my daughter the HPV vaccine. Is it safe?
Rotavirus gets its name from the fact that, under a microscope, the virus resembles a wheel. And you could say, like you might say about a wheel, rotavirus goes round and round. This nasty, potentially lethal bug causes severe acute gastroenteritis with diarrhea and vomiting, primarily in infants and young children. Fortunately, there are two rotavirus vaccines that can protect children from this disease.
A: Yes, the two human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines are considered safe, at least as far as current research shows. Both have been widely studied and accepted by major medical groups.
Still, some parents are concerned. The vaccines are relatively new and long-term studies are lacking. Parents also worry because the vaccine is given to young teen girls (typically at ages 11 or 12, though it can also be given between ages 13 and 26) to protect them from some strains of HPV that are passed along during sexual contact. (A CDC advisory committee just recommended the vaccine for boys, as well.) Few parents want to think about their teens having sex. Some feel that vaccinating them would encourage them to do so.
Here's what you should know: HPV is a common STD. Exposure to the virus does not require sexual intercourse; other sexual activities (such as oral sex) can put a teen at risk. Most infections clear up on their own. But sometimes they persist and, left untreated, may lead to genital warts, precancerous cervical lesions, and cervical cancer. An HPV infection can also cause vaginal lesions.
Talk to your daughter about the vaccine. But also be sure she understands that even with the vaccine, she still needs to practice safe sex to protect herself against other STDs and unwanted pregnancies when she does become sexually active.