The New York Times reports on a new study from the National Center for Health Statistics with this horrifying headline: HPV Infects Close to Half of U.S. Adults. “More than 42 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 59 are infected with genital human papillomavirus,” the first line reads. But that’s not all.

More than 25% of men and just over 20% of women are infected with high-risk strains of the virus, strains which, according to The Times, “account for approximately 31,000 cases of cancer each year, other studies have shown.”

So let’s review. The human papillomavirus currently infects nearly half the U.S. population. Certain strains of the virus are known to cause cancer. Approximately one quarter of U.S. males, along with about one fifth of American women, are infected with those high-risk strains.

In fact, the piece quotes Geraldine McQuillan, lead author of the study and an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “One of the most striking things that we really want people to know is that high-risk HPV is common – common in the general population,” says the good doctor.

So the CDC wants us to know that HPV is common, and so are strains of it that cause cancer.

Here’s what else we know about HPV. It’s usually spread during sexual activity. While most HPV infections are cleared by the body within two years, some persist. Those are the ones, according to The Times, that “can lead to genital warts and cancers of the cervix, vagina, penis, anus and throat. Two viral strains, HPV-16 and -18, cause almost all cervical cancers.”

Scary stuff. Here’s what Dr. McQuillan recommends: “If we can get 11- and 12-year-olds to get the vaccine [that can help prevent HPV infection], we’ll make some progress,” says Dr. McQuillan. “You need to give it before kids become sexually active, before they get infected…By the time they’re in their mid-20’s, people are infected and it’s too late. This is a vaccine against cancer – that’s the message.”

Let’s look at another behavior that’s known to cause cancer and see what the CDC has to say about it. Here’s the CDC on smoking: “Youth use of tobacco products in any form is unsafe.” Its “Information Sheet” lists reasons why kids should not smoke. It also provides tips for parents on how to stop their kids from smoking, telling them they can be the “greatest influence in their kid’s lives.”

And good for them. Smoking is unhealthy and dangerous and should be discouraged.

But what about a virus, transmitted sexually, that also can cause cancer? Shouldn’t the behavior involved be discouraged? Shouldn’t people be warned about the risk of cancer? Shouldn’t parents be encouraged to influence their kids not to engage in such risky behavior?

Clearly there’s a double standard here (or doublespeak perhaps). There is an HPV epidemic in this country which could be stopped – or at least limited — by changes in behavior. Why is it reasonable to tell kids not to smoke (in order to avoid cancer and other diseases) but not reasonable to tell them not to have sex until they’re married to another person who has waited (in order to avoid cancer and other diseases)?

The answer to this health crisis is staring us in the face. But the CDC and schools and sex educators and many parents just can’t bring themselves to admit that it’s time to put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to sex.