Gardasil For Teens: Less Cancer vs. Parental Emotion

   As more teens are being vaccinated against HPV and the sometimes-resulting cervical cancer, they are NOT having more sex, according to government statistics. So take that, Abstinence Clearinghouse. And they’re not experiencing unwanted side effects, either. So there, Michelle Bachman. 

   People who fear or hate sex make almost everything about sex. And so they did with this vaccine, which is recommended for pre-teens before they become exposed to the virus.

   The Family Research Council, for example, opposes the vaccine: “Giving it to young women could be potentially harmful because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex.” Yes, of course. The average 14-year-old girl refrains from “premarital sex” because she’s afraid that at age 50 she might get cervical cancer. Besides, preventing “premarital sex” is more important than preventing cancer, right?

   The Religious Right has had problems with the Gardasil vaccine from the start. HPV has been the Right’s poster child for the dangers of “promiscuity”—an infection that may show no symptoms, and in some cases leads to cervical cancer and even death.

   So what have they done? They’ve successfully scared millions of parents (and thousands of physicians) away from this now-standard medical procedure. The journal Pediatrics found that in 2010, 44% of parents said they did not intend to vaccinate their daughters.

   Only about a third of American teenage girls have received the full course of three doses (about half have received at least one does). By comparison, vaccination rates in countries like Denmark and Britain are above 80%. Even Rwanda has reached 80%. And yet even with America’s low vaccination rate, infection with the viral strains of HPV that cause cancer dropped by half among teen girls in the four years after the vaccine’s American introduction.

   Of course, any reasonable pre-teen getting the vaccine would ask why she was getting it. That would inevitably lead to one or more conversations about sex with doctor, parent, or both. This should be a good thing—especially in families where sexuality is a taboo subject. But rather than embrace this teachable moment, many parents are rejecting it—putting their own child, and the child’s future sexual partners, at risk.

   It’s easy to be sympathetic with parents who are queasy about discussing sex with their kids. Just like few of us want to think of our parents as being sexual, few of us want to think of our kids as being sexual. And yet, unlike our parents, our kids need information and support as they develop their values and decision-making habits. Statistics clearly show that “Just say no” or “Wait until marriage” are only implemented by a tiny, tiny fraction of Americans.

   Some parents try to walk a fine line of supposed neutrality. “I’ll give my kid the shots if she asks, but there’s no reason to bring it up,” said one of my patients last year. “You’re a good parent,” I replied. “That isn’t how you’re handling information and action on your kid’s nutrition, dental care, sleep habits, and study habits—waiting until she asks about it.”

   When it comes to sexuality, giving in to our comfort zone can’t be the only criterion a good parent uses. As my teacher Sol Gordon used to say, “No parent on earth is completely ready to discuss sex with their kids. We have to do it even when we’re not ready.”

   According to CDC estimates, Gardasil could prevent 53,000 cases of cervical cancer and 17,000 deaths among girls now age 13 and younger if only 80% of preteen girls were vaccinated. As one official said in response to last week’s report, “It’s possible to protect the next generation from cancer, and we need to do it.”

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