September is Sexual Health Awareness Month. Learn about HPV.
By Pamela Tom, HPVANDME Founder
I received my first kiss when I was in eighth grade and 12 years-old. It was unexpected and I only remember it because I didn’t like it. The kiss was innocent enough but I knew nothing about boys and even less about the birds and the bees. If there’s anything that hasn’t changed over time, it’s that parents would rather do just about anything rather than talk about sex with their kids. However learning about sexual health saves lives. When young people learn about HPV in school, it teaches them that HPV is very common, highly contagious and that the HPV vaccine is cancer prevention. A robust sex ed curriculum—including HPV education—in our schools will save lives yet is being largely ignored.
Sex education for high school students began in the 1920’s. By the time I was an adolescent in the 70’s, “sex ed” had evolved into a political pariah. Religious groups blamed sex education for promiscuity and pre-marital sex.
Of course, it wasn’t true then … nor is it true now.
The HPV Vaccine Does Not Encourage Early Sex
As the founder of HPVANDME, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides information about HPV cancer prevention, I hear a variety of reasons why parents don’t want their children to receive the HPV vaccine. One mother whom I met in a class told me, “My son only has one girlfriend so he doesn’t need the vaccine.” Dr. Robert Jacobsen, a pediatrician and medical director for the Population Health Science Program at the Mayo Clinic, says parents have told him that their kids are too busy with sports practice to complete the two or three shot vaccination series. Other parents believe that the vaccine will cause their children to have early sex. Multiple studies conclude that there is no correlation between HPV vaccination and the onset of sexual activity among young people.
- A 2018 Canadian study found, “Human papillomavirus vaccination has not been associated with increased sexual risk behaviour among young females.”
- A more recent 2019 study at the University of Michigan also found, “Teens are no more sexually promiscuous in states that have passed legislation promoting the HPV vaccine than those living in states that have not …”
- The results of a 2014 study published in Pediatrics determined that HPV vaccination does not alter risk perceptions about sexual activity. Researchers surveyed a group of teenagers and young women (ages 13 to 21), asking whether they thought they needed to adopt safe sexual behaviors after getting the HPV vaccine. Those who were sexually active did not reduce protective measures. At the same time, those 16 to 21 years old who erroneously thought that the HPV vaccine also protects against other STIs, were less likely to be sexually active.
Education = Good Health
Once parents and students learn that HPV is a virus like any other infection, they learn that the HPV vaccine is not about sex; it’s about cancer prevention. It’s the only vaccine that can prevent six types of cancer, including HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer, or cancer of the throat and base of the tongue. It’s the same cancer that actor Michael Douglas battled in 2012. These types of cancer are now the most common HPV+ cancer, surpassing incidents of cervical cancer.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education; 27 states mandate sex education and HIV education. However, it is far more likely that a person will contract HPV, and not HIV, during his or her lifetime. According to the CDC, HPV is the most common STI: “79 million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, are infected with HPV.”
States such as California that mandate comprehensive sex education do not have a mechanism to enforce the requirement. As a result, some districts exclude HPV lessons in the classroom; others devote minimal time to HPV. Educators blame the siloed structure of public school districts, no statewide mandate for HPV education, and a lack of teaching resources.
Ask Your Child’s School for HPV Education
When I learned that my son’s fifth grade teacher wasn’t giving her students many writing assignments (because her specialty was math), I asked her how the curriculum could be improved. She listened and put more focus on reading and writing even if it made her a bit uncomfortable.
Ask your children’s teachers to include complete HPV lessons in their health education curriculum. Involve the school nurse. Speak to the school board about this important public health issue. Contact HPVANDME for teaching resources.
When HPV throat cancer survivor Mike West shared his story with high school students in Chula Vista, CA last year, he discovered that students didn’t know anything about HPV but they had questions and wanted to learn more.
What Every Parent Should Know About HPV
My children are now adults yet I will always worry about their health and safety. I’m sure that most parents feel the same way. That’s why vaccinating children at the recommended age of 11 to 12, or as early as nine years-old, makes sense. It means that you will prevent your adult children from getting six types of HPV-related cancer.
Why vaccinate at age 9 to 12? The reason is simple. The vaccine provides the best protection before your child is exposed to HPV. HPV is highly contagious. Your child may not be having sexual activity as an adolescent; however, HPV vaccination now will protect them later in life.
We teach our kids to eat healthy, exercise, and make responsible choices.
Knowledge is power. Learning about HPV is the power to prevent cancer.
The HPV vaccine is the safe, anti-cancer vaccine for boys and girls.