We would love to know what you think on this matter. Please feel free to comment at the end of this post.
Vaccines can be life-savers. They can also cause problems of their own, and they are expensive. You have to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks. Here are some points to consider regarding the HPV vaccine.
HPV is a virus. There are almost 100 different strains, some causing genital warts, some causing cancer, some not doing anything at all. There is no cure, though many people fight it off. Nevertheless, this virus is responsible for an estimated 99% of all cases of cervical cancer, which will cause the deaths of about 3,670 women in 2007 according to the American Cancer Society (and there will be an estimated 10,000 new cases of cervical cancer in 2007, again almost entirely caused by HPV). HPV is highly contagious, with the probability of eventually infecting up to 80% of sexually active women and 50% of sexually active men (estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
The vaccine (brand name Gardasil) protects against the four strains of virus that cause most cases of cervical cancer and most cases of genital warts, but it does not protect against all strains.
HPV is preventable. As a sexually transmitted disease, it is relatively easy to control exposure (especially compared to an air-borne virus like the flu). If someone is abstinent or only has sex in the context of a mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner, they can prevent infection. Condoms, according to the CDC, have unknown effectiveness in preventing HPV. As a disease contracted through skin-to-skin contact, HPV is easy to transmit if the infection is located in an area not covered by the condom. Therefore, although condoms may help, abstinence outside of a mutually faithful monogamous relationship should be considered the standard for disease prevention.
When considering the likelihood of your daughter contracting the STD, it is important to look at the big picture. Even if your daughter chooses to be abstinent, she risks exposure through poor or impulsive decision making, the fact that there is currently no test for male HPV infection and there is no guarantee that your daughter’s future husband will have been abstinent, or the awful possibility of date rape. The HPV vaccine is only effective prior to infection, so “thinking ahead” is necessary to using the vaccine. Better safe than sorry?
On the flip side, the vaccine is new. Effectiveness has only been tested for up to five years, so it may be important not to give the vaccine too soon (too many years before real risk of exposure). In addition, the vaccine cannot be considered a substitute for abstinence, as there are many strains of HPV not affected by the vaccine. Any sexually active female is still recommended to have annual pap tests to check for cervical cancer, regardless of whether she has received the vaccine.
A final concern that has been bantered about the media is that a young woman will consider the vaccine a “license to have fun” or be careless about sex. It should then be noted that vaccines for hepatitis (another STD) have been around for decades and do not appear to have any influence on teenagers’ sexual decision making. In fact, most teens do not even know for which diseases they have been vaccinated, nor which of those diseases is transmitted sexually.
So the question remains, do you think the HPV vaccine is worth the risk and investment?