You've no doubt heard about how important the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine is in preventing cervical cancer in girls, but it’s important for your son’s health, too. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all boys get three doses of Gardasil, the vaccine that prevents HPV, starting at age 11 or 12.

Apparently many parents haven’t gotten the message. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV vaccination rates are low for males compared to other vaccines recommended for the same age group. Only 34.6 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 have received one dose, and only 13.9 percent have received all three doses. In comparison, 86 percent of all teens received the Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) vaccine.

Why are so few boys getting the vaccine?

“The recommendations for boys are relatively new, and were published five years after the routine female vaccine recommendations,” says Gale Burstein, MD, a pediatrician at Women and Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, New York, and the Erie County Health Commissioner. Originally, “this vaccine was strongly advertised as specifically for females, which may have further confused parents.”

Why your son needs it

It’s estimated that at least half of all sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their lives, says Deborah Arrindell, vice president of health policy for the American Sexual Health Association and National Cervical Cancer Coalition. While many people who get infected never experience any symptoms, others will develop genital warts or cancer as a result. In fact, every year, there are more than 9,300 HPV-related cancers diagnosed in men.

Male health problems caused by HPV include:

  • Genital warts
  • Oropharyngeal cancer, a type of head and neck cancer that affects the back of the throat, including the tongue and tonsils. Throat cancer is on the rise, thanks in large part to HPV.
  • Anal cancer
  • Penile cancer

You don’t need to sweat the sex talk

The HPV vaccine may make parents nervous because it has to do with their children’s future sexuality. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go into a serious birds and bees talk when your son gets his dose.

“The exact conversation you will want to have depends on your son’s age and of course how much he already knows about sexuality in general,” says Arrindell. You may want to simply explain that the purpose of the vaccine is to protect against infections, just like other vaccines he has received.

If he’s curious and already knows about sex, you can use the vaccine as a jumping off point for a bigger conversation. You may want to talk about HPV and how common it is. You can explain that while most cases of HPV infection aren’t dangerous, the vaccine provides important protection that’s good to have.

“Use this as a chance to talk about broader sexual health matters, too, including a discussion on respecting boundaries, resisting pressure to have sex, and using contraception,” says Arrindell. “Above all, let your son know it’s OK to come to you with questions and concerns.”

For older boys, try visual aids

“It’s important to tell them that the HPV vaccine will protect their future girlfriends and wives from getting cervical cancer,” says John B. Steever, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital Adolescent Medical Center in New York City. “But I also remind them that they can get the other cancers as well as genital warts. I say, ‘Who wants to have that on their penis?!’ ”

Burstein even takes it a step farther. “A picture can deliver a powerful message. Young men who see photos of genital warts are usually very motivated to get the HPV vaccine,” she notes.

“Teens usually believe that they will live forever, and that cancer is not likely to affect them in the near future. So discussion about cancer is important, but photos and discussions about genital warts can be also very strong and more immediate motivators.”

Sexual orientation can make a difference

Males who have sex with males are at higher risk of HPV infection and complications, so the HPV vaccination is very important for them, says Burstein. You don't have to ask your son if he's gay or even explain the connection. Steever recommends saying to all teenage boys, “HPV can cause mouth, throat and anal cancer,” and letting them connect the dots if they will.

Don’t fear it will jumpstart his sex life

Early concerns that the vaccine might lead to increased, earlier or riskier sexual behavior turned out to be overblown, says Arrindell. Studies have shown getting the vaccine does not make kids start having sex sooner. 

What does have a big impact on your son's sexual decision-making? Your relationship with him. Teens who feel connected to their parents and perceive that their parents do not want them to engage in sexual activity are much less likely to initiate sexual relationships, says Burstein. So don’t be afraid to simply say, “I know you aren’t ready for sex yet, and I want you to wait for a long time, but when you are ready, this vaccine will make sure your are protected from these risks.”