Vaccinating Against HPV, Preventing Cancer

Deb Chilcoat

Deb Chilcoat

Cancer. I don’t want my kids, your kids, or anyone’s kids to get cancer.

Cancer destroys the body, the mind, and the spirit. Cancer strains families. Cancer costs society billions of dollars. Cancer caused by the human papillomavirus is preventable.

Let me repeat that: Cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) is preventable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all children ages 11 and 12 be vaccinated against HPV, the virus that causes most cervical cancers. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its official vaccination schedule in 2012 to reflect the CDC’s recommendations. Three shots administered within a six-month period can dramatically reduce the number of HPV-related cancers. The CDC estimates 15,000 HPV-related cancer-cases in females and 7,000 in males that may be prevented by vaccination each year.

I’m conflicted about the response to these changes that now include the recommendation to vaccinate boys as well as girls—not about the recommendation or schedule of vaccination themselves, but that the response to the announcement to include boys was met with little to no controversy. On one hand, it indicates how far we’ve come since Gardasil was approved in 2006. Do you remember all the arguments against approving a HPV vaccine? Some people said it would send the message that getting the shot somehow encourages children to have sex. Others thought that getting the shot at age 11 was too young. And another group thought that the vaccine would cause mental illness. Some didn’t like that the government was imposing mandates on vaccination.

(Wasn’t it just a year ago when there was major fallout from Michelle Bachman’s comments about Rick Perry and Texas’s mandatory vaccination of middle school girls? Talk about a teachable moment! Public health professionals seized the opportunity to clarify misinformation about effectiveness, side effects, and costs; tout the benefits of herd vaccination—when a population or community is vaccinated against a specific disease to build greater immunity; explain that the body produces higher antibodies when given at a young age; and, get people thinking about cancer rather than how HPV is transmitted.)

On the other hand, it irks me that the arguments of 2006 didn’t rear their ugly head again, and I strongly suspect the sexual double standard is at work. In our society, men are encouraged and rewarded for sexual behavior, while women are denigrated and punished for theirs. Of course, there has been progress since the feminist revolution, but still, in 2012, the overwhelming assumption is that men must “sow their wild oats,” and women who do the same are called [insert despicable label here]. So it seems somewhat reasonable to approve of an 11-year-old boy getting a vaccine that protects him from a virus transmitted through behavior our society believes to be inevitable (i.e., sex). Unlike boys, though, our society still sees girls as precious objects never to be deflowered. Well, the fact is that the majority of both sexes will likely engage in at least one act of sexual intercourse by the time they are 16 years old.

So the argument stands that we should protect both sexes from cancer by vaccinating them before they become sexually active. Vaccinating your son and daughter against HPV is not an indication of your family’s sexual values and beliefs. It is merely your way of showing them that they are loved and you do not want them to get cancer.

Deb Chilcoat, M.Ed., is a Senior Manager of Training & Technical Assistance at Healthy Teen Network.

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