Your preteen is in the best position to protect themselves from long-term health problems, including cancer, related to the very common sexually transmitted disease, human papillomavirus.

And with an estimated 6 in 10 New Jersey adolescents unprotected from the virus, physicians are reminding parents that ages 11-12 are most ideal for starting the vaccination regimen.

"Obviously the effect of the vaccine is not going to be as good as if it was given before the onset of sexual activity," said Dr. Karim ElSahwi, attending gynecologic oncologist at Hackensack Meridian Health Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

Doctors note most sexually active people exposed to HPV generally aren't harmed, but about 20% of infected individuals can see adverse effects down the road. These symptoms can develop years after having sex with someone who is infected.

Over 90% of HPV-associated cancers are preventable with a vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cervical cancer is the cancer most commonly associated with HPV, but the virus can also lead to vulvar and vaginal, anal, penile and oral cancers.

"I think we have to get the message out that the vaccine is very safe, that the side effects are very, very minimal, and this is based on really large studies," ElSahwi added.

According to the state health officials, 39.1% of adolescents aged 13-15 were vaccinated for HPV in 2017. Those who initiate the HPV vaccine at 11 or 12 years old should receive two shots six to 12 months apart. Three doses are needed for those who initiate the vaccination at 15 years of age or older. "Catch-up" vaccinations are available for individuals beyond their teen years.

Typically, people with HPV will not experience symptoms of an in infection until it has already caused a health problem.

"Screening becomes very important," ElSahwi said. "If we do we screening right, we actually have a pretty large window where we can catch those precancerous lesions and treat them."

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