Fostering a safe and supportive environment for your kids is the most important thing a parent can do to protect them. Vaccinating against diseases is critically important too. Without vaccines, your child is susceptible to many life-threatening diseases, including cancer.
One immunization that has received a lot of publicity since its introduction to the U.S. a decade ago is the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine. HPV is very common in older adolescents and adults — almost everyone who is sexually active will encounter HPV at some point in their lives. HPV causes:
▪ Almost 100 percent of cases of cervical cancer in women
▪ About 75 percent of cases of vaginal cancer in women
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▪ About 63 percent of cases of penile cancer in men
▪ About 91 percent of cases of anal cancer in women and men
▪ About 72 percent of cases of cancer in the back of the throat in women and men
▪ All cases of genital warts in both women and men
About 14 million Americans, usually as teenagers or young adults, become newly infected with HPV every year. Waiting for marriage is no guarantee of protection. Twenty percent of women with only one lifetime sexual partner are infected with a high-risk strain of HPV, which leads to an eventual cancer diagnosis.
While this sounds dire, HPV infection now is completely preventable thanks to the HPV vaccine. Since the vaccine was first recommended in 2006, HPV infections in teenagers have decreased by more than 50 percent! This will translate into fewer cases of cancer.
The three HPV vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are all recommended for boys and girls as a three-shot series. Vaccination against HPV should start at 11 to 12 years old, an age that hopefully is well before your child’s sexual debut and exposure to the virus. The vaccine may be given up to the age of 26.
The vaccine also does not lead to promiscuity. There have been numerous studies looking at sexual behaviors in HPV-vaccinated kids, and those who have been vaccinated are no more likely to engage in sexual activity or to start having sex at a younger age.
The HPV vaccine is one of four vaccines recommended for adolescents. The meningococcal vaccine protects against meningococcal meningitis, an infection of the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord, and meningococcal bacteremia, an infection in the bloodstream. Meningococcal diseases are not common, but can cause death within hours if not recognized and treated.
About 10 percent to 15 percent of teenagers who catch meningitis will die, and about 20 percent of the survivors will have long-term disability. The bacteria that cause meningococcal diseases are spread from person to person by respiratory secretions every time they speak, laugh, cough or sneeze. People sharing close quarters with others, such as college dorms or military barracks, are at increased risk, which is why all kids should be vaccinated at age 11 or 12, with a booster dose around age 16.
Teens should also get a booster dose of Tdap vaccine, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough). Most children in the U.S. receive a complete series of vaccines against this infectious trio by their fifth birthday, but much like they grow out of clothes and shoes, they grow out of immunity too. All youth should get Tdap vaccine around age 11 or 12 to boost the level of immune protection.
The final immunization for adolescents is a yearly influenza vaccine. Flu can be serious, and even deadly, for healthy teenagers. It is even more dangerous in kids with chronic medical conditions like asthma and diabetes. A yearly flu shot can decrease the risk of serious influenza infection, which decreases the risk of having a seriously sick teenager in your house for a week or more.
Transitioning teenagers from childhood to adulthood is an enormous undertaking, and try as one might, even the most attentive parents cannot protect against everything. We don't have vaccines against drunk driving or smoking cigarettes or obsessions with boy bands. But at least the four vaccines recommended above will protect your kids from serious infections.
If you are unsure about the vaccination status of your kids, or have questions about any of the vaccines mentioned above, speak with your pediatrician or the Florida Department of Health to ensure that these potentially life-saving immunizations are up to date. For more information, visit www.CDC.gov, www.AAP.org or www.healthychildren.org.
Jessica I. Schneider, M.D., is a third-year medicine-pediatrics resident and Lawrence B. Friedman, M.D., is director of adolescent medicine at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.