The human papillomavirus—or HPV—causes many types of cancers, including cervical cancer. There is a vaccine that can prevent HPV infection, and it’s recommended that both girls and boys receive it.

As a pediatrician, Dr. Pilar Bradshaw knows that immunizations save lives by protecting against a host of illnesses, including cancers caused by HPV.

“Cervical cancer is caused by invasive, aggressive HPV infection and it can be prevented with a vaccine,” she says. “The HPV vaccine is perhaps the most important vaccine you can give to your young child. Why do we say that? Because unlike many of the diseases like whooping cough and diphtheria that we vaccinate for, HPV is incredibly common.”

The virus is highly transmissible and can spread by skin-to-skin contact. Three out of four adults in the U.S. will contract HPV by the time they are 30 and most don’t know they are carrying the virus because it’s often asymptomatic.

It is estimated that nearly 50,000 people will be diagnosed with HPV-caused cancer this year and the virus is linked to more than 7,000 deaths annually from cancers of the cervix, vagina, penis, anus, head and neck. Countless more people undergo painful medical procedures to try to remove pre-cancerous lesions caused by this virus.

The two-dose vaccine prevents nine strains of HPV that are known to cause cancer and the vaccine is recommended for children ages 9-to-12.

“This vaccine is not new,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “It’s been around since 2006, it’s been extensively studied and tested, it’s safe and it’s incredibly effective.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the mid-2000s, 11.5% of teenage girls carried at least one HPV strain. That figure dropped to 1.8% a decade later and a recent study in the American Cancer Society journals found a 65% drop in cervical cancer incidence from 2012 through 2019 among women in their early 20s, the first cohort to receive the HPV vaccine.

It’s important that parents of boys know that they need the vaccine as well, Dr. Bradshaw says. “HPV affects both men and women,” she says. “It’s really important as a public health measure that we give it to both boys and girls.”

The notion that giving the HPV vaccine to children may make them more likely to become sexually active has also been studied and there is no evidence to support it.

“I don’t talk about this shot as being a sexually related vaccine,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “This is a cancer preventing shot. The reason we want your child to be immunized against this virus early is because the earlier you give the HPV vaccine, the more reactive and the good protection your child’s body can mount from having that vaccine.”

The two-dose vaccine is most effective when given to preteens because their bodies produce more antibodies to this shot than older adolescents and adults. This also ensures that kids are protected from cancer before they are exposed to the virus, which Dr. Bradshaw says is the best way to help keep them safe.