It’s very frustrating to work in health care today. As a nurse practitioner working in pediatrics, I’ve always spent some portion of an office visit talking to patients and parents about preventive health measures, but somewhere over the past several decades, health-promotion and disease-prevention efforts have been lost. Today’s providers now see the need to focus on preventive medicine with acute care, but the question is: Are we really doing enough to promote health?

Practitioners need to take a look at adolescents and young adults and devise a plan that will teach parents the benefits of healthy lifestyles for themselves and their children.

Statistics show that most first sexual encounters occur in the seventh grade, when the average student is 12 to 13 years of age. According to the CDC, risky sexual behavior is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality among U.S. adolescents. Each year, there are approximately 19 million new sexually transmitted disease (STD) infections, almost half of which afflict individuals aged 15 to 24 years. And let’s not forget about teen pregnancy.

These risks have been noticeably rising as the incidence of human papillomavirus (HPV) increases. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the nation, with an estimated 6 million new cases each year. More than 100 types of HPV affect humans; 40 involve the genital areas. HPV types 16 and 18 are responsible for cervical cancer in females, but the virus is also responsible for penile and anal cancers in males and oropharynx cancers in both genders. Research shows that HPV is transmitted not only through bodily fluids but through skin-to-skin contact as well.

Gardasil is a quadrivalent vaccine intended for the prevention of HPV types 16 and 18 as well as types 6 and 11, which are responsible for genital warts in both genders. The vaccine is administered as a series of three injections over the course of six months. It is recommended for females and males aged 9 to 26 years.   

Although the vaccine’s purpose is to prevent HPV that may lead to cervical cancer, commercials for the product don’t state that HPV also causes genital warts or that it’s the most common STD in the adolescent age group. This underrepresentation of the harmful effects of HPV may put the public at risk. Common reasons that parents give when declining the vaccine for their children are, “My teen is not sexually active,” or “Maybe we’ll wait until he/she is a bit older.” This thinking negates the vaccine’s preventive purpose.

Parents who are educated as to how HPV is spread and the benefits of the vaccine often change their minds about approving it for their son or daughter. Remember, this is an STD that is spread through skin-to-skin contact. Also, an adolescent who is not sexually active today may be a mere six months down the road — the amount of time it takes to administer the HPV vaccine. The idea is to vaccinate the individual prior to his or her participation in any sexual behaviors.

Vaccination most definitely does not serve as the “go-ahead” for teens to engage in sexual activity; it merely protects against one STD that can be fatal later in life. Many other STDs can still be contracted through unprotected sex following HPV vaccination.

As health-care professionals, it is our duty to educate parents on the full benefits of the HPV vaccine. We must also encourage adolescents to make informed decisions when considering  entering into sexual relationships.