You know how important vaccines are to your daughter’s health. But when it comes to the relatively new HPV vaccine, which can protect against several types of cancer, some parents aren't so sure. Because the vaccine’s purpose is to prevent human papillomavirus — the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. — many moms and dads are reluctant to discuss it with their daughters.

That may be way so few kids get this important series of shots. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 37.6 percent of teen girls and 13.9 percent of teen boys have received all three doses.

“Parents often worry that giving their child this vaccine gives them permission to be promiscuous,” says Meera Varman, MD, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska who is researching the long-term effectiveness of the vaccine.

Because it’s recommended as early as age 9, “parents also think, ‘my child won’t be exposed to sex until much later.’ But the fact is, the HPV vaccine is most effective when it’s given before children become sexually active,” says Varman. And studies have found that getting the HPV vaccine does not make kids start having sex sooner.

“Getting the HPV vaccine does not make kids go, ‘Woohoo! I can go have sex!’ It may actually do the opposite,” says John B. Steever, MD, a specialist in adolescent medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. “Research also shows that if you do comprehensive sex education with kids, they are more likely to choose abstinence.”

While your daughter’s sex life may indeed be a long way off, HPV is so common that almost everyone will be affected by it at some point, according to the CDC. Even if your child doesn’t have sex until getting married, it’s still possible for her to contract HPV if her partner has been exposed.

Here’s how you can help her understand the vaccine and why she needs it.

Make the discussion age appropriate

“Conversations about sex are best done over a long period of time,” says Steever. “When a young child asks where babies come from, you don’t launch into a discussion about penises and vaginas. With a tween, it’s perfectly fine to just start simple: ‘This is a vaccine that will help prevent infections when you get older, and now is the time to get it.’” Your child is likely also getting other booster immunizations at the same time and you can talk about how they are all important to her health.

If your child is a bit older or wants to know more, you should take advantage of the teachable moment.

“One of the great things about the HPV vaccine is that it’s a segue into a conversation about sex,” says Steever. “You can say, ‘There are great things about being in a relationship, and sex is part of that. But there are also some scary things. You can get your heart broken or become a parent before you want to. You can also get certain infections if you aren’t careful and someday when you are ready for sex, this vaccine will protect you from that.”

Explain how it protects girls

You’ve probably heard that the HPV vaccine will prevent your daughter from getting cervical cancer, but that’s not all. Other female health problems caused by HPV include:

  • Genital warts
  • A type of head and neck cancer called oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the back of the throat, including the tongue and tonsils
  • Anal cancer
  • Vulvar and vaginal cancer

“Most tweens and teens know what cancer is, and know someone who has had it,” says Steever. “They understand you don’t want to get it.” Just be careful not to create the impression that sex causes cancer. You can explain that HPV is a very common virus that, in most cases, doesn’t cause symptoms or problems. But sometimes it can cause unpleasant genital warts, and even cancer — which is why this vaccine offers important protection.

Don’t stop with the vaccine

Depending on your daughter’s age, this could be a good time to bring up other sex issues. Explain that the vaccine doesn’t protect against everything, and use the opportunity to talk about how to practice safe sex.

Loop in your pediatrician.
It’s normal for some kids to have more questions that they are reluctant to bring up with Mom or Dad. Pediatricians today are well versed in having conversations about sex, says Steever. Ask your daughter’s doctor to have a one-on-one chat when she goes for the vaccine, while you stay in the waiting room. “It’s great to be proactive and give them this privacy,” says Steever.