Wes: Gardasil, the vaccine for human papilloma virus, is back in the news again, thanks to recent comments in the Republican debate attacking Gov. Rick Perry’s executive order in 2007 requiring Texas parents to get their sixth-grade daughters vaccinated. To opt out, parents had to sign an affidavit stating they had religious or philosophical opposition to the vaccine. While the main focus of that argument was whether the drug manufacturer’s intense lobbying effort influenced Perry’s decision, two larger issues still loom over the vaccine: safety and the fact that HPV is contracted through sexual contact. As usual, the whole issue of sexuality makes some parents squeamish, particularly when kids are 12, which is when the vaccine is recommended.
HPV is a serious issue. It comes in about 150 strains, and at least half of all men and women will have one of them at some point in their lives. The vaccine targets the two strains that cause cervical cancer, which, if left unchecked, can kill you, as it does about 4,000 American women annually. There’s no test for HPV in men, and the CDC says that while condom use can reduce its spread, condoms are less effective for this STD than for others because of the way the virus spreads from skin contact rather than through fluid exchange. I’m not a pediatrician, but I deal with this topic frequently when working with parents and teens. The best advice I can offer is to study what the Centers for Disease Control, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, say in making a decision about whether to have your daughter vaccinated. Both recommend the vaccine as safe and effective, and there are even new recommendations to have boys vaccinated too. So get the facts.
As for the sexual component, my advice is simple: Make this vaccine a medical procedure before it’s logically linked to sexual conduct. And even if that connection is made, I’ve never met a teenager who decided to have sex because she’d gotten the HPV shot, or who saw the vaccine as permission to do so. In fact, I’ve never met one who did it just because she was on birth control. I’ve met plenty who had sex without either one, and I’ve seen the consequences firsthand. They aren’t anything you want your child to face.
Miranda: Wes is right on both counts. No one wants any type of cancer, and if there is an easy way to prevent this, it should at least be considered by those whom it affects. While I don’t know enough about the Gardasil shot to shout its praises, I hope it at least gets people talking. Whether or not a teen gets vaccinated should be at the discretion of her parents, with input from the teen, because she has a right to weigh in on decisions concerning her health and body. Families can research together the pros and cons and decide if it’s right for them, and in the process set a good example for a teen that will last the rest of her life.
HPV is passed through sexual contact, which tends to be a controversial topic in every household. I’ve known girls who got the shot when it first came out and others who chose not to get it. It isn’t a defining choice, and I’ve yet to see someone judged for getting Gardasil. I agree that it’s naive to think that just because a girl is protected from one sexually transmitted disease that she will reverse her way of thinking about sex. Keeping communication open and honest will help your daughter understand your reasoning about this issue. As a parent, focusing on how the Gardasil shot fits into the way you raise your daughter is a good start. Cervical cancer is tragic. The most important job of parents is to do what they can to keep their children happy and healthy.