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7 questions you might have about the HPV vaccine, answered by an expert

From tips for reducing nerves to exactly what the vaccine protects against.

IF YOU HAVE a first-year secondary school student at home, you should have already received information about the vaccines that your child is being offered in school this year. While some schools have already had a visit from the school immunisation team, most schools will be visited over the next couple of weeks.

The HPV vaccine is now being offered to all first-year students, including boys and girls. There are more than 100 types of HPV, but the vaccine protects against the nine types that cause most cases of genital warts and nine out of ten HPV-related cancers – including cervical, vulval, vaginal and anal cancers.

Heading off to school on vaccination day can be nerve-wracking, both for you and for your child. But the more information you have about the process, the less stressful it will be for everyone involved.

We’ve compiled a list of common questions parents and caregivers might have about the HPV vaccine – and checked in with Dallas Brennan, a community Registered General Nurse for the School Immunisation Programme for the South Lee area in Cork, for her expertise on the school HPV vaccination process.

Here’s what you need to know about the HPV vaccination programme in your child’s school.

1. What actually happens in school on vaccination day? 

Brennan, who has been working in the field of community immunisation for almost two decades, explained that the vaccination day process generally runs very efficiently:

On the day of the vaccinations, the immunisation team arrives quite early. Depending on the size of the school, you could have a big team with four to ten nurses, one to two medical doctors, and an admin person who will help it all run smoothly.

The vaccination team works closely with the school principal and teachers to ensure that the process of vaccinating 50-200 students at one time is calm and safe.

The team sets up a number of vaccination stations, and we have an area for the students to wait before they are vaccinated, as well as an area for them to sit after the vaccination. 

It is important that you have signed and returned the consent form to school before the vaccination team visits, if you want your child to be vaccinated.

2. How many vaccinations are given?

Each first-year student will be given a total of four vaccines in the school year in two separate visits. The first two, dose one of the HPV vaccine and the Tdap vaccine, are being offered in schools right now. The second two, dose two of the HPV vaccine and the meningococcal (MenACWY) vaccine, will be given from February 2020. 

3. How can I prepare my child for vaccination day? 

Brennan offered two tips to help vaccination day go well for your child: make sure to feed them a healthy breakfast and send them wearing a t-shirt that doesn’t require unbuttoning to administer the vaccine. If your child is required to wear a shirt to school, suggest they wear a light t-shirt underneath. Talking with your child about what they can expect on the day will also help reduce their anxiety about the process. 

shutterstock_465965054 Shutterstock / Syda Productions Shutterstock / Syda Productions / Syda Productions

4. Who can I speak to if I have questions about the process? 

For parents or caregivers who might have additional questions or concerns about the vaccine, there are nurses and doctors available to answer questions on vaccine day. Additionally, parents will have received an information pack about the vaccine process from the school, including a phone number to ring the local immunisation office with questions in the run up to the vaccination. 

5. What if my child is out of school on vaccine day? 

“Mop-up” clinics have been set up for any child who isn’t in school on vaccine day, or for any child deemed unwell by the medical doctor on site, whether because of an illness or heightened anxiety. The school health team will set up an appointment for your child to receive the vaccine in an HSE clinic, and with a parent present, so that your child will not miss these important vaccines. 

6. What happens if my child feels unwell after they’ve had their vaccine?

While Brennan explained that it is extremely uncommon for children to have reactions to the vaccines, they might experience dizziness, headache or soreness in their arm at the vaccination site. 

Screens are available for for added privacy, and if a student needs to lie down after the vaccine, we can accommodate that. For any student that doesn’t begin to feel better, the team makes contact with the parent and organizes for the student to go home.

Likewise, if your child has a history of fainting, Brennan said that the vaccine will be administered to them while they are lying down. 

7. Can I wait until my child is older to have them vaccinated?

The HSE advises that students receive HPV vaccine in the first year of secondary school.

The HPV vaccine is best given in at this time for a few reasons – first, the immune system responds better between the ages of 9-15. Also, it’s best to be sure that the vaccine is administered before any sexual activity begins; the vaccine is most effective before a person has been exposed to HPV.

The cost of the HPV vaccine through the schools programme is free. The vaccine is also free to any girls in second to sixth year of secondary school who declined to be vaccinated in previous school years.

Brennan is enthusiastic about student participation in the vaccine through the local schools programme:

When vaccines are administered in schools, uptake is significantly higher. HPV is a life saving vaccine, so the schools are providing a great public health service to the community.

For more information on the HPV virus and the HPV vaccination program in schools, head to hpv.ie for more information, including contact details for your local school immunisation team.

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