The science on vaccines is clear: They save millions of lives and protect our children from the pain and damage that measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tuberculosis and more can cause. So when my son’s doctor suggested he get the HPV vaccination, why did I hesitate?
HPV is different than the other aforementioned diseases because it’s not passed by casual contact. It’s not highly contagious in the way that measles can infect a person two hours after the germ carrier leaves the area. HPV is transmitted only through intercourse and oral sex, so it doesn’t seem as random.
If one contracts HPV, it’s not apparent immediately and might never be an issue. Most HPV infections go away on their own within two years. Plus, there are more than a hundred strains of HPV, and the vast majority pose little risk for genital warts, cervical cancer, throat cancer and a variety of other rare cancers. It’s statistically unlikely my son will ever need the protection offered by the vaccination.
The human papilloma virus (HPV) affects nearly 80 million people in the United States. The virus can spread through skin-to-skin contact or through sexual activity. Although HPV will often go away on its own, certain types can cause cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine is a safe and effective vaccine that can protect children, women, and men from HPV-related diseases. The recommendation is for preteen girls and boys to receive the vaccine around age 11 or 12. This ensures that they’re protected against HPV before they’re likely to have exposure to the virus. You can get the vaccine up until age 26.
Still, cervical and throat cancers are killers. Radiation and chemotherapy have severe side effects. Genital warts aren’t deadly but yuck.
Vaccinating my son would help protect him and every woman he ever becomes intimate with. And my hope as a parent is that he would always want to provide all the safety he can to a woman (or partner not judging!) with whom he’s intimate. When I had the sex talk with him (there were actually several as he matured), safety, caring and commitment were always part of the conversation.
What are the benefits of the HPV vaccine?
The HPV vaccine can protect against HPV types 16 and 18, which both can lead to certain cancers.
Some vaccines can also protect against strains known to cause genital warts.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved three vaccines to protect against HPV. This includes Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix. Each one involves a series of three injections into a muscle over six months. In order to truly benefit from the vaccine, it’s essential to receive all three injections.
Each of these vaccines protects against HPV types 16 and 18. These two types are considered high-risk infections because they can lead to cervical, vaginal, or anal cancer.
Some of the vaccines, such as Gardasil, also protect against strains 6 and 11. These two strains are known to cause genital warts.
Does the HPV vaccine have side effects?
When [my then 18-year-old son] got his second dose of Gardasil, he started having symptoms within a few weeks. I initially thought he had the flu. Within two days of [the] third [dose], his legs gave out on him. Something had seriously gone wrong with my son. He has ataxia. He was recently diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome.
Risk factors to consider
If you aren’t vaccinated, several factors can put you at increased risk for contracting HPV. This includes having:
- unprotected sex
- multiple sexual partners
- wounded or opened skin
- contact with contagious warts
- a habit of using smoking or chewing tobacco, which weakens the immune system
- a compromised immune system
- poor nutrition
Other ways to prevent HPV
The top way to prevent HPV is by getting vaccinated. Other ways you can prevent getting the virus include the following:
- Use protection during sex. Condoms, dental dams, and other types of barrier protection can lower your risk of contracting HPV.
- Get routine screenings for cervical cancer. Doctors can find abnormal cell changes in women ages 21 to 65 through regular cervical cancer screenings.
- Maintain a healthy diet. Research links folic acid deficiency to increased HPV infection and low serum retinol levels to precancerous conditions.
Why wouldn’t he have the vaccination?
There are reports of side effects, very bad side effects. As I tracked down the reports, nearly all were anecdotal. I couldn’t find any scientific research indicating serious adverse side effects. Various branches of the U.S. government have assured the public that no serious adverse events could be linked directly to the HPV vaccine.
Do I trust my government? Yes, but some other countries are reviewing the vaccine. Japan withdrew its recommendation, but teens could still get it if their parents asked.
The HPV vaccine was first introduced only for girls starting at age 9. The recommendation to include boys came a few years later when my son was nearly 20 years old. As I hesitated and researched, he aged out of the recommended age group (21 years old for males; 26 for females).
Easy to say now, but I regret not encouraging him to get the vaccinations. Vaccinations are part of the social contract we make as part of society. This is one of those cases where the greater good wins out, even though a few a very few people will have an adverse reaction.
What level of guilt will I feel if he contracts throat cancer? What pain will he feel if his beloved suffers from cervical cancer? My hesitation means I will always worry, and my son’s future love(s) will have a risk they should not be asked to take.
I could have saved my son from the risk of that particular guilt. He could have avoided putting a person he cared for at risk. Isn’t that what we do for our loved ones?
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