Marilyn Bloss Koester is a native Texan, travel fanatic and mom of three. She is also an award-winning scholar who teaches writing and literature at the University of Memphis and Memphis College of Art.
By Marilyn Bloss Koester
My father – a pediatric surgeon in Texas – called me one day. “I want to tell you something and I want you to tell all of your friends.” I immediately imagined some horrible underground plague infecting children in the Mid-South that only he was privy to (see, I can go there too). But what he told me was that every one of my children, and every one of my friends’ children, should be receiving the Gardisil vaccine. Coincidentally, my eldest child just had her first round of the Gardisil vaccine that very same day. I proudly stated that I had already boarded the Gardisil train and prepared to exit the conversation. But my father said that his pediatrician colleagues are running up against backlash from parents and I needed to talk with my friends. Wait. I thought the whole anti-vaccine debate was over and done with – what kind of backlash? “Well,” he said, “some parents think it’s some type of sex vaccine.”
Hold up. Sex vaccine? So if my kid gets the vaccine, they will automatically have sex? Or they will now have a “free pass” to sexually experiment? Or only kids that have sex need the vaccine? What precisely is a “sex” vaccine? I could hear the sighs from him on the other end of the line as he related various responses pediatricians hear about the vaccine from parents. I thought back to my appointment earlier that day. My (wonderful) pediatrician had asked about my permission for the Gardisil vaccine in a half-apologetic, half-embarrassed near whisper, as if he were having to tell me that my dress was on backwards (entirely possible, particularly on a Monday). “So…since your child is now twelve…well…I really do recommend the Gardisil vaccine.” Lower cancer risks and prevent long-term diseases? Heck yeah, sign me up! Well, sign her up and give her the shots.
Unfortunately, not all parents react that way. The following evening I had conversations with a few friends about Gardisil. One mom opted to skip the vaccine because she had read horror stories on Facebook (A discussion about the impact of social media on our own sound choices, medical or otherwise, will have to wait for another day). One mom said that her child wasn’t going to be sexually active, so it wasn’t necessary (Hint: cervical cancer doesn’t give a hoot if you are messing around with the quarterback under the bleachers). One mom said that she only has boys, so she is thrilled that she “just doesn’t have to worry about this stuff!” (Yes, you do. Gardisil helps prevent HPV disease in boys too). One mom asked her pediatrician why so many parents were reluctant to have the vaccine and his response was “Well, it has a certain stigma attached to it.” Ah, there’s the rub. Stigma – social stigma, sexual stigma – outweighs science. Let’s face it: Gardisil is the Scarlet Letter of vaccines.
I am not here to advocate for a wholesale requirement of the HPV vaccine for all children. I am not a medical doctor. I am a concerned parent that, like you, must navigate the internet horror stories, thousands of articles, and talk to our doctors to make the best informed, scientifically-based decisions for our family. That said, I acknowledge that Gardisil is facing a serious uphill battle, primarily due to misinformation and misconception. Despite being around for over a decade, Gardisil vaccination rates in America are still at an appallingly low 38% for adolescent girls according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation – far behind other developed countries like Australia. This low rate appears to stem from two sources: safety concerns and sex stigma.
To address the first: Gardisil is safe. Up until 2013, approximate 57 million doses of the HPV vaccine had been administered and there is an enormous amount of research indicating its safety. Beth Stebner quotes Dr. Amanda Dempsey in her article: “this is one of the most well-studied vaccines in terms of safety and is extremely safe.” Both SkepticalRaptor and Snopes have debunked myths about Gardisil safety. What is not safe? The internet. Be sure to weigh the realities of science and medical-advice against the potential proliferation of “horror stories” about certain vaccines and medical choices. This is not to say that each one of these stories is completely without basis, but focus on proven facts and statistics rather than anecdotes.
To address the second: Gardisil should not be dismissed because of ill-conceived notions about propriety and sexual practices. As Lux Alptraum states in his recent article questioning why more children don’t receive the vaccine, “There’s no indication that a simple vaccine acts as a catalyst for sexual behavior.” Simply put, the idea that the vaccine will make it “easier” for your child to have sex is a myth. Alptraum quotes Dr. Anupam Jena: “’Here is a therapy we have to prevent cancer, and we’re not using it,’ says Jena — something that would be unthinkable were we discussing a vaccination for colon or skin cancer.” Think about that for a moment. If your pediatrician says, “Hey, I have a vaccine that will prevent your child from developing skin cancer,” most of us wouldn’t think twice. But because this vaccine prevents cervical cancers, anal cancers, genital warts and a range of other supposed “sex” diseases, we hold the phone. Then we exit the exam room with said phone and turn to social media for absolution of our quick decision to forego the vaccine.
For me, this is the most distressing issue about Gardisil. Parents dismiss Gardisil as a “sex” vaccine unnecessary for “their” children. Parallels can be seen with abstinence-only versus comprehensive sexual education (yet another topic that must wait for another day!). Without debating the reality of sexual practices of today’s youth, or your children, know that these cancers and strains of HPV cause harm. They cause disease. They cause death. Being proactive about your child’s health when they are young is not giving them a free pass to engage in sexual activity. It’s taking their health seriously, now and in the future.
The basics: Gardisil is recommended for girls ages 11 to 26, with recommended routine vaccination occurring at ages 11 or 12. For boys, Gardasil is recommended from ages 9 to 26, with recommended vaccination occurring at ages 11 or 12. Gardisil must be administered in three doses. Yes, three shots – shot #1, shot #2 two months later and shot #3 four months after that. I hear you. The thought of having to make two more appointments, remember them, and drive back to the doctor’s office for yet another shot makes me want to scream. But, like Nike, Just.Do.It. All three shots are necessary for full effectiveness. I was able to make quick “shot only” appointments and we were in and out in less than ten minutes.
In the end, I am going to say what all big pharma commercials say…talk to your doctor. But I would also encourage you to be your own advocate for your child’s health. Be informed – legitimately informed – and make the best choices for your child’s health regardless of stigma or assumptions about a child’s current, or future, sexual behavior. And, thanks, Dad, for encouraging me to share this important information, even if it came at the expense of listening to a dozen bad puns. “Tell parents that they need to get their ‘guard’ up…Get it?” Yep, Dad, I got it.
For more detailed information from Gardisil itself, visit http://gardisil.com
Learn more from CHOICES at our Resources Page.
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