Danville Express

Living - March 16, 2007

The 411: HPV vaccine needs explanation

by Katharine O'Hara

The breakthrough of the new Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, Gardasil, which became FDA-approved in 2006 and has been proven to immunize against cervical cancer and genital warts in woman, has sparked controversy all over the world. The HPV vaccine targets the four most common high-risk strains of HPV (the most prominent STD in the United States - 500,000 new cases each year), which cause about 70 percent of all cervical cancer and 90 percent of genital warts cases. The protective effects of the HPV vaccine are expected to last a minimum of 4.5 years after vaccination with little to no reported side effects and are recommended for women between 9 and 26 who have not already contracted HPV.

This miraculous innovation could prove extremely hopeful for the 10,000 Americans who will suffer from, and about 4,000 who will die of, cervical cancer in the next year, according to the American Cancer Society. However, the advent of the HPV vaccination has provoked global debate about issues never previously considered.

Many are offended by efforts of several states to mandate the vaccination of all girls (Texas is currently the only state that requires the vaccine for incoming sixth-grade girls), due to claims that mandatory vaccination would violate parental rights. Aside from qualms about the high cost of the vaccination (usually around $300 - the most expensive vaccine ever developed), many parents who have not yet confronted the subject of sex with their daughters wish to preserve the innocence of their young girls and feel getting their daughters vaccinated may rush them into discussions they are not developmentally ready for. Parents are also worried that the vaccination might create a feeling of invincibility and promote sexual promiscuity in their "protected" daughters.

"As someone who got the shot, it did not make me want to go out and have sex but actually made me more aware of the seriousness of sex and its accompanied risks. But if teenagers are going to take the risk and have unprotected sex, I think this vaccine can only help by trying to protect us girls from the bad stuff. I mean, who wants cervical cancer?" said one San Ramon Valley High School junior, a girl, who found out about the HPV vaccine from a television commercial. "I am all for girl power and being the strongest and healthiest girl I can be. It seems like all it can do is help us, even if only a little bit, especially for girls my age. It is just not worth passing up this vaccine."

The concern is that patients who are vaccinated might feel protected against all venereal diseases, when in reality they are only protected against specific strains of one disease. Though this concern is valid, the argument begs the question: Just because a child receives his or her tetanus or measles vaccination, does this mean they are going to run around stepping on rusty nails or exposing themselves to the measles?

Parents should do their children a favor now in order to protect them from a potentially life-threatening disease later. This issue is not so much about sexuality, but rather about the safety of future generations of women. Physicians and parents must properly educate young women about the vaccine, informing them that the vaccination does not protect against other STDs or prevent pregnancy. Women who receive the vaccine should also be aware that, though the HPV vaccine has miraculous preventive effects, it is still important to get a regular "Pap smear" cancer screening to ensure protection against cervical cancer, especially because the vaccine does not protect against 30 percent of all cervical cancer cases.

A San Ramon Valley High School senior says her doctor recommended she get the HPV vaccine while at a routine physical but did not explain much about the virus or vaccine.

"My doctor explained that all girls aged 12 to 25 should get the vaccine, but did not mention anything about not being protected against other STDs or pregnancy, or even how safe it was," she recalled. "I didn't really know much about HPV or the vaccine, but since my doctor recommended it, I didn't really think twice. I figured if the doctor wanted me to have it, it would be OK, which was probably not a well-educated choice."

If the HPV vaccine is going to be widely available, it is extremely important that doctors not only make recommendations, but also explain the significance of their patient's decision, the safety of the vaccination, and clearly clarify what their patient will be protected against.

Scientists predict that one in four Americans will contract an STD at some point in their life, one-quarter of these teens. In a world where casual sex is increasingly becoming the reality for more and more people, it is important to be aware of the imminent risks that present and future generations will face, and to consider taking advantage of the incredible innovations the expanding medical field has to offer.

The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a junior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at ohara5@comcast.net.

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