Has anything been left unsaid in the uproar over vaccination since the measles outbreak? My little sleepy corner of the world, Marin County, has even been skewered by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show for its high rate of personal-belief exemptions. Not since the peacock feathers and hottubs of the 70s have we been so subject to ridicule.
Yet one aspect of the vaccination debate deserves more attention. A local newspaper story provides a clue, quoting a parent who said, almost as an afterthought, “There are vaccines I didn’t do. I skipped the one related to sexually transmitted disease.”
She means the HPV vaccine, which protects against the human papilloma virus. HPV is the most common of all sexually transmitted infections. Although usually harmless, it can be far deadlier than the measles—HPV causes cervical and other cancers. In the United States, 12,000 are diagnosed with and 4,000 die from cervical cancer each year. Even those less drastically affected may suffer invasive testing, treatments, and anxiety. There is no way of knowing who will be afflicted or who will spread it to others.
But since 2006, it’s been possible to stay safe from the most serious strains of HPV. All it takes is three shots administered over six months to girls and boys around age 11, before they become sexually active.
You’d think parents would jump for joy at such an easy way to protect their children from getting or giving cancer. Yet even though the vaccines are highly safe and effective, a recent KQED report notes that based on 2011 data, the most current available, “Just 33 percent of girls and less than 7 percent of boys in the U.S. have gotten all three recommended doses.” When it comes to HPV, there’s no ground zero like Marin County to mock for low immunization rates; they’re abysmal across the whole country.
Many parents fear that vaccinating against HPV condones early sexual behavior, despite evidence to the contrary. Even some doctors are reluctant to bring up the topic because of the link to sex. But such fears fly in the face of reality.
We can keep our heads in the sand and hope that nothing bad happens. Or we can keep our kids safe from cancer and other ills with the HPV vaccine.
How will/did you choose? What do you think of the vaccination debate?
For more on HPV and the HPV vaccine:
Center for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/hpv/vaccine.html
KQED Forum: http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201408040900
Dr. Jen Gunter, Ob-gyn who writes about women’s health: https://drjengunter.wordpress.com/tag/hpv-vaccine/