By Dr. Mallika Marshall

BOSTON (CBS) — The National Cancer Institute is calling for more American children to be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus, most commonly referred to as HPV.

While the vaccine is safe and can actually prevent cancer, many kids aren’t receiving it.

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Emily Ocasio of Boston, a mother of six, was diagnosed with HPV 12 years ago.

“I had pain, surgeries and doctors telling me I have cancerous cells,” she says. “That’s scary to hear.”

In addition to genital warts, HPV causes nearly all cervical cancers in women. This can lead to other genital, head, and neck cancers in both genders.

“Nobody wants cancer,” says Dr. Mary Brown, a pediatrician at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

She routinely gives the HPV vaccine to her patients.

“I don’t even usually recommend it,” she says. “It’s part of the routine vaccine schedule.”

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The vaccine is recommended for all children, beginning as early as age 9. It is given as a series of three shots.

However, only 40 percent of girls and 21 percent of boys are actually receiving those shots. Does that fall short of the 80 percent goal set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services?

In a recent survey, many pediatricians admitted they don’t strongly recommend the vaccine for their patients, in part because they worry parents will refuse it.

Some parents believe that because HPV is sexually transmitted, vaccinating their kids could send the message that it’s OK to have sex.

“It’s something parents worry about,” Brown says, “But part of the whole goal of vaccination is to prevent, so if these kids are protected before they become sexually active, then it is more likely to prevent the HPV infection and hopefully then prevent the cancers.”

Ocasio, who just had her 11-year old daughter vaccinated, agrees.

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“I don’t think that getting my daughter vaccinated means that I’m telling her that’s it’s OK to be active,” she says. “I’m giving her a chance that when she grows up she doesn’t have to have any complications the same way that I did.”

Dr. Mallika Marshall