Health Column: Now might be time to talk about HPV

Whether your child is a tween or a 20-something, the topic of sexually transmitted diseases is generally awkward to broach. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s December approval of Gardasil 9, the newest version of the vaccine previously approved to prevent cervical cancer caused by the Human Papillomavirus, means parents may have to tackle the subject sooner than anticipated.

That’s because the latest vaccine, which protects against nine strains of HPV — five more than the original Gardasil, released in 2006 — has been approved for use in girls and boys as young as 9.

According to an FDA press release, Gardasil 9 “has the potential to prevent approximately 90 percent of cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers.”

Like its predecessor, the new vaccine is administered as three separate injections over the course of six months. It does not protect against other sexually transmitted diseases, like HIV.

Pat Sondgeroth, a physician’s assistant at North Fork Family Medicine in Mattituck, said her practice hasn’t yet received supplies of Gardasil 9 but that she always encourages parents and their children to “make an informed decision” about whether to receive the original Gardasil vaccine.

“What’s best for them is the decision I respect,“ she said. “Like any difficult topic, you try to open the door and see where they want to go with it.”

So, what does she think is the most effective way to talk about the HPV vaccine with kids?

Naturally, pre-teens are “a little young to understand the concept of sexually transmitted diseases,” Ms. Sondgeroth said, so she tells younger patients whose parents have opted to have them vaccinated that Gardasil is simply meant to “help prevent serious illness.”

Teenagers — surprise! — are usually more complicated.

“If a teenager doesn’t want to hear about [the vaccine] then they’re not ready to discuss it,” she said. “I’ll bring it up and let them know this is an option available to them. You’ll have some patients who you know aren’t ready to explore that.”

Ms. Sondgeroth said that when patients who express discomfort talking about the vaccine, she sends them home with educational pamphlets, something she said “goes a long way.”

On the flip side, she said, some parents have discussed Gardasil with their teens before their visit to the doctor, so they are already members of Team Vaccinate or Team No Thanks.

“It’s a whole spectrum,” she said. “You just respect what their decision is at the time of their visit.”

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