Parents seem to worry that if they give their child the HPV vaccine (which prevents cancers due to some viruses that are sexually transmitted) that they are somehow giving their child the green light to have sex. After talking frankly with a lot of parents, especially parents of girls, they feel that by giving the vaccine, there’s one fewer deterrent to having sex. Others feel that by saying yes to the vaccine they are sending a message that they fully expect their teenager to be sexually active (at some point), and many aren’t comfortable making that statement either. In reality, all parents logically understand that their son or daughter is almost guaranteed to have sex at some point in their lives but most don’t want to think about it and no parent wants to imagine their 11-13 year old as a sexual being.
The problem, of course, is that parents are often the last to know when their child has decided to become sexually active. In general, being a good student and a great kid doesn’t preclude becoming sexually active. Parents seem to think they can tell that their teenager isn’t sexually active and will say things like, “I know we can wait on the vaccine, Janie isn’t there yet.” In reality, parents are poor estimators of when their children become sexually active and often miss the optimal window for vaccination. Once girls are sexually active, the rate of vaginal colonization with the human papilloma virus is high and the vaccine is less effective.
The good news is that a recent study has reinforced what I have seen in my practice: girls who receive the HPV vaccine are not having sex at younger ages compared to girls who have not received the vaccine. In the study, teens who got the HPV vaccine were also found to be no more likely to have multiple sexual partners than unvaccinated teens and were more likely than their unvaccinated counterparts to consistently use condoms when sexually active.
All in all, since girls (and boys) will virtually all become sexually active at some point and since the likelihood of colonization with the HPV is high, it makes sense to vaccinate both young men and women against this virus. Now that we have data to show that teens who receive the vaccine are not more likely to have sex at a younger age the worry that the wrong message is being sent can be set aside and parents can continue to have healthy discussions about sexuality and encourage sexual decision-making consistent with their family’s values.