It’s 2014 and it’s a reality that you can protect a child, teen or young adult from a cancer-causing virus with a series of just three shots. About 79 million Americans are currently infected with Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that can cause warts but also lead to cancer (anogenital and/or throat cancers). Most data find 14 million new people are infected with the virus every year. Most of the time, HPV enters our body and our immune system gets rid of it on its own, however sometimes HPV causes trouble at the cellular level. Fortunately there’s a safe and effective way to stop the spread of HPV, prevent some strains of the virus from ever causing cellular changes in our body and ultimately prevent the related cancers it triggers: the HPV vaccine.

HPV Vaccine Is Safe

The HPV vaccine isn’t really “new” anymore. Between June 2006-March 2014, approximately 67 million doses of HPV vaccines were distributed. The vaccine is made from one protein from the HPV virus, designed to trigger a protective immune response; the vaccine cannot cause HPV infection or cancer. A recent study by Pediatrics found the HPV vaccine to be not only effective, but long-lasting. The study followed vaccinated girls and boys for eight years and showed evidence of durability; the HPV-antibodies remained at high levels over the years after immunization.

Side effects of the vaccine include pain at injection-site (4 out of 5 people), dizziness or fainting, nausea and headache (1 in 3 people). Because fainting is a known side-effect when teens get shots in general, recommendations to wait 15 minutes after the vaccination before heading out the door should always be taken seriously.

What does it protect against?

The vaccine protects against some HPV infections and their side effects. Some vaccines have 2 strains of the virus that are cancer-causing, while others have 4 strains (2 cancer causing strains and 2 strains that cause warts). When started on-time at age 11, the vaccine has the best success. Studies show that the vaccine produces higher antibody titers when given in the 11 to 12 year-olds when compared to older teens. Every year in the U.S. about 26,000 people are diagnosed with HPV-associated cancers. About 8,400 throat (oropharynx) cancers annually are HPV-related.

When should my child get vaccinated?

The HPV vaccine is recommended for girls and boys 11 or 12 years of age. It is a three shot series, with the second dose one to two months after the initial vaccination. The third dose is due at least six months after the initial shot. If you wait a bit longer between doses it’s okay to still do the series, but one problem we’ve had is getting teens to finish all three doses within a year’s time. Only about 1/3 of girls (and fewer boys) have completed the series. If a teen misses the 11-12 year old window, catch-up vaccines are recommended for girls and women age 13 to 26 and boys and men age 13 to 21.