Would you like a shot that prevents cancer? Of course you would. Who wouldn’t? Imagine a world without this terrible scourge.
Then why, I ask you, are so many moms and dads refusing to have their children inoculated with the human papillomavirus vaccine?
According to some experts, the HPV vaccine can wipe out cervical cancer in one generation.
The answer is simple – many parents think giving this shot to their children will be a license for them to have sex. So they deny their daughters the chance to live a life free from cervical cancer, which still kills 5,000 women a year.
Let me back up a bit. We now know that cervical cancer is a sexually transmitted disease, the most common STD around. If a male virgin marries a female virgin, there is no way she can get cervical cancer. Lifelong lesbians and lifelong nuns who have never had a sexual experience with the male organ cannot get cervical cancer – with 95 percent certainty.
Most of the time, when HPV infects a woman’s cervix the body fights it off successfully. But sometimes the virus enters the body’s cells, hijacking them into making cancer.
Back in the 1940s, a Greek physician, Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou, showed that a simple test could detect cervical cancer before it had a chance to spread and do harm. The test became known as the Pap smear, and women eventually began getting the test on a regular basis.
The HPV vaccine works preventively. If it’s given to young people before they become sexually active, the virus won’t have a chance to do its damage.
A recent article in the British Medical Journal showed how the Australians are far ahead of us when it comes to the HPV vaccine. By pushing a strong public health campaign, they vaccinated scores of girls and young women. Just a few years later, they found a 50 percent drop in abnormal Pap tests in those who’d had the vaccine.
Now, on to the “If I vaccinate my kid they’ll have sex” discussion. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that young people are having sex later today than they did just a few years ago. Not only that, but teen pregnancy is down – by 50 percent since 1991.
Are there possible side effects from the HPV vaccine? Of course. There can be some pain at the injection site, and some recipients might get a slight fever or headache. But these effects are mild – and remember this vaccine is to prevent cancer. Isn’t that worth a tiny bit of discomfort?
Teaching values to children obviously rests in the hands of the family. The discussion of when to have sex and with whom is a complex interplay between parents, peers, society and your child. As a parent, I understand how difficult this conversation can be.
But I also know it is my duty to protect my child from harm. Giving them the HPV vaccine clearly provides them with a shield against cervical cancer.
Dr. Zorba Paster hosts a radio program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WBFO-FM 88.7; email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.