Ask the Expert: Should My Kids Get the HPV Vaccine?

Derrick Lin, a head and neck oncologist, shares his take.
HPV Vaccine

Vaccine photo via istock.com/dina2001

UPDATED, July 19, 2016: On Tuesday, the American Cancer Society endorsed guidelines from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices that call for all boys and girls to be vaccinated at age 11 or 12. Failing that, vaccination is recommended for females ages 13 to 26 and males ages 13 to 21.

Original story:

A CDC report released Friday echoes what doctors and leading hospitals have argued for years: Children and teenagers should be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that, while often harmless, can sometimes lead to cancer. Vaccinations, they argue, could prevent some of the almost 40,000 HPV-related cervical, genital, head, and neck cancers diagnosed annually.

It’s a pretty straightforward line of logic—and yet, many parents are wary of the vaccine, perhaps because of its ties to negative reactions, or because they fear it will encourage young teenagers to become sexually active. As a result, as of 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys had received all three doses.

Given the confusion, we turned to Derrick Lin, chief of the Division of Head and Neck Oncology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear.

Question: Should my kids get the HPV vaccine?

Answer: Yes.

The details: Lin says the shot is safe, and that all boys and girls should get it, ideally before they become sexually active.

“If you’re a parent, you always like to assume your child will never be sexually active—or not sexually active until they’re 45,” he laughs. “But as we all know, that’s not likely the truth.” As such, he recommends seeking the vaccine between the ages of 10 and 14.

As a head and neck oncologist, Lin has a unique perspective on HPV. Though the virus is most commonly associated with cervical cancer, Lin says HPV-related head and neck cancers are on the rise.

“Traditionally it’s been smokers and drinkers, so people would say, ‘Well, I don’t smoke, it’ll never happen to me,'” he says. “Since 1964 [when the surgeon general first said smoking is unhealthy] the incidence of overall head and neck cancer has gone down, but if you stratify it, the number of tobacco-related head and neck cancer has significantly gone down, but the incidence of [HPV-related] oropharyngeal cancer has actually gone up.” Vaccinating children, he says, could help slow that trend.

The bottom line: If you have young children, you may want to speak with your doctor about the vaccine.


Jamie Ducharme Jamie Ducharme, Contributor jducharme@bostonmagazine.com