January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. You’ve probably heard a lot of reminders about the importance of pap smears. You might know that cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women and that about 12,000 Americans are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually. What you may not be hearing as much about is what parents can do to reduce that number in the future.
I recently made the decision to vaccinate my oldest daughter against HPV (human papillomavirus), the virus responsible for causing most cases of cervical cancer. To me, the choice seemed simple. Why wouldn’t I want to protect my child against cancer? But when I spoke with other parents, there were some horrified reactions. None of these folks were averse to vaccines in general, but they saw Gardasil as problematic. The objections to Gardasil fell into two major categories:
- Moral objections – The belief that vaccinating against a sexually transmitted virus is equivalent to endorsing/promoting promiscuity
- Safety concerns – The belief that this particular vaccine is significantly less safe than others
Puritanical Pearl Clutching
The moral objections to the vaccine were fairly easy for me to dismiss because they fall into the same category as arguments in favor of abstinence-only sex education. They are based on the idea that not giving our children the knowledge and tools to keep their bodies safe and healthy will somehow prevent them from engaging in sexual activity. This has been proven false by multiple studies. Not only does keeping kids ignorant not delay sex, it increases the likelihood of unprotected sexual activity. States with abstinence only education policies rank highest in teen pregnancy.
There was a subcategory of these objections relating to the recommended age for the Gardasil vaccine. They might be OK with the vaccine later, they said, but eleven or twelve is far too young to worry about such things. What they are overlooking is that immune response to the vaccine is better at this age than later. Kids getting the HPV vaccine in their preteen years only need two doses, those receiving it at 15 or later need three.
Some parents wondered what I would tell my daughter about the shot. The answer there is simple: the truth. My oldest hasn’t stopped asking questions since she could form a sentence. Inevitably, some of those questions have been about sex. My first instinct was to deflect, the way my mother did. But where I quietly stepped back from my mother’s obvious discomfort, my daughter attacked every dodge, omission and half-truth with fierce tenacity.
I realized early that I had two options: Answer her openly and honestly, or shut down discussion completely. I chose the former, and as she approaches her teenage years, I’m glad she feels comfortable asking me about absolutely anything. Well, most of the time anyway. I am human, and in the moment when I’m struggling to find the right words it can feel awkward as hell. But because we’ve had those conversations, the idea of discussing the HPV vaccine wasn’t terrifying. And temporary awkwardness is a small price to pay for long term trust.
The danger factor was much more concerning to me. It didn’t help that my mother, upon hearing that I planned to vaccinate my child against HPV, emailed me links to every horror story she could find. Ironically, in the end, those scary articles proved to be useful. The more I researched the alleged cases of major vaccine injury, the more I noticed that the stories were short on details and long on pseudoscience. There were many references to unnamed “experts”, to vaguely described “particles” and “special blood tests”, and unexplained “mechanisms within the body”.
In some cases, the source site was openly against vaccines and pharmaceuticals in general, touting homeopathy and claiming knowledge of “Big Pharma” conspiracies to keep or make people sick. In others, it was obvious that the vaccine was being labeled as dangerous as a scare tactic to further their political agenda. This category includes the official sounding American College of Pediatricians, a socially conservative fringe group frequently at odds with the American Academy of Pediatrics.
As for the rest, some incidents that initially appeared to be vaccine related were found to have another cause. Other “expert” testimonies and calls to boycott assume the vaccine is responsible for adverse health events where no proof exists. Snopes breaks down some of the more widespread articles and videos, pointing out that an illness or health problem reported after vaccine administration is not necessarily caused by the vaccine. Also, statistics can be manipulated so there appears to be a correlation where none exists.
In short, I found no evidence from any reputable source that Gardasil presented a significant danger to my child (and considerable evidence that my mother needs a hobby). On the other hand, the Center for Disease Control, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics all made compelling, scientifically sound cases in favor of vaccination. While no vaccine or medical procedure is completely without risk, the reported rate of Gardasil complications is extremely low. As with other vaccines, the vast majority of those complaints are minor, like pain or swelling at the injection site. After doing my homework, I felt confident that the benefits of the vaccine far outweighed the risks.
The appointment itself was as uneventful as I expected. The nurse who met with us at the start of the checkup mentioned two other vaccines my kiddo was due for, then hesitantly mentioned that a third vaccine was also recommended.
“Yes, I do want her to have the HPV vaccine,” I replied, sensing her discomfort.
The nurse let out a sigh of relief and explained that she had gotten some pretty harsh responses to that recommendation, so she had learned to tread carefully. She left to get the vaccines ready while the doctor came in for my daughter’s exam.
When the nurse returned, she administered the shots quickly and efficiently. Afterward, the arm injected with Gardasil was no more painful than the one injected with the other vaccines. Other than whining a bit in an effort to convince me to stop at Dunkin’ Donuts before dropping her off at school, my daughter was happy and side effect-free. The second dose was equally free of complications.
I hope that by sharing our thought process and experience, more parents will be encouraged to protect their children against HPV. There’s a lot of frightening propaganda out there, and unfortunately these items rise to the top of a typical Google search. Since all the noise makes it hard to find reliable, scientific information, I’ve provided a few links below to help those who want to learn more.
The American Cancer Society – HPV Vaccines
The Centers for Disease Control – Information for Parents: HPV Vaccine Is Safe
The American Academy of Pediatricians – HPV Vaccine Safety: Frequently Asked Questions
The National Cervical Cancer Coalition – HPV Vaccines
WebMD – Is The HPV Vaccine Safe?
Snopes – On Gardasil