If you have an adolescent son or daughter, you might be wrestling with a big question: Whether to get your child the HPV vaccine.
Unlike other vaccines, this one isn't a requirement to go to school, and a lot of Florida parents are declining it. In fact, we have the second-worst HPV vaccination rate in the nation. Just a quarter of girls ages 13 to 17 (and even fewer boys) have received all three doses of the vaccination needed to protect against the human papillomavirus.
What's the big deal? Not only is HPV the most common sexually transmitted infection, it also — years later — can cause cervical, oral, penile and anal cancers. And the list of HPV-related cancers keeps growing as more about the virus is discovered.
So now there's a big public health campaign, just announced in Tampa last week, aimed at increasing the vaccination rate.
Much has been made of parents' reluctance to vaccinate young kids (it's most effective at ages 11 to 12, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to ward off something that nice boys and girls shouldn't have to worry about.
But HPV is so common that just about all of us who are sexually active pick it up at some point in our lives, though it usually goes away on its own. Trouble is, there's no way to know who will shed the virus harmlessly, who might pass it along, and who might get genital warts at best or cancer at worst.
So much for the nice boys and girls argument. Anyway, if you're looking for something to blame for kids having sex, the HPV vaccine isn't much of a target. It doesn't do anything to prevent pregnancy, HIV, gonorrhea, syphillis, chlamydia or other STDs.
Nor does it protect against suffering from regret. Now, that would be an awesome vaccine.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, was in town last week to help boost the vaccine campaign. She said pediatricians bear responsibility, too, for not emphasizing the need for it. A recent study found one of the top reasons parents didn't ask for the vaccine is because their child's doctor didn't mention it.
Some parents might worry it's too new to trust. The first HPV vaccine, Gardasil, was introduced eight years ago and is used around the world. No serious side effects have been found. In fact, the largest study yet, published this week in the journal Pediatrics, found no serious side effects (and good immune response, which is the whole point) in nearly 1,700 youths followed over eight years.
Yet we have irrefutable proof of cancer's serious side effects.
The vaccine is not cheap — three doses are needed, and each is more than $150. But insurance covers it, and the federal Vaccines for Children program helps those who can't afford it. Ask your doctor or local health department.
I know it's hard to imagine a beloved child getting a sexually transmitted disease, much less a potentially fatal disease.
But most of us can look at a child we love and imagine the kind of adult we hope they'll become. My list might include traits like intelligence, kindness, compassion, independence, good sense of humor — the kind of person I like to be around.
I know somebody who can check off all those traits and more. She's one of my dearest friends. She's also being treated for an HPV-related cancer.
We've talked about how we wish the vaccine had been available when we were kids, and if it had been, how we both think our moms would have found a way to get it for us, even if it involved awkward conversations and three separate trips to the doctor.
If you have a child now, you don't have to wish for the vaccine — you can act. I hope you'll consider it.