HPV Vaccine Conundrum

When I got the call asking to write this article, I have to admit I was a little split on the issue. When this vaccine was developed, I wasn’t yet a mother. It also was developed around the time that we were hearing in the news that vaccines aren’t always the safest route. When I learned the next year that I was going to be a mother, one of the first things I asked my future pediatrician was if vaccines were safe. Looking back at that sentence I now feel foolish even questioning that, but let’s chalk that up to a nervous soon-to-be mom, okay?  

However, there’s that HPV vaccine. It’s a newer development and new things can be scary. Not only is it new, but in RI it is mandatory for children over age 11 to have the vaccine. The vaccine is intended to prevent human papillomavirus infection, which leads to cervical cancer, among other cancers. According to the CDC, this is a common virus with a current infection rate of 80 million Americans, which works out to be one in four. Each year, 14 million people become infected with this virus. That is not to say that the 14 million infected every year will then develop a form of cancer; according to the CDC, nine out of 10 times HPV infections go away. However, for those that do not go away, HPV infection can lead to “cancers of the cervix, vagina and vulva in women; cancers of the penis in men; and cancers of the anus and back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (oropharynx), in both women and men (CDC).”  The HPV vaccine can more than help that as, “every year in the US, HPV causes 30,700 cancers in men and women. HPV vaccination can prevent most of the cancers (about 28,000) from occurring (CDC).”


This is a vaccine that can stop various forms of cancer. So where’s the harm in that? I turned where everyone in the 21st century turns when they want opinions, social media. I had countless people reach out privately about this matter with personal stories that they wanted to tell anonymously because this is a sensitive subject. It’s so sensitive, that when the Department of Health issued the regulation that students need this vaccine to go to middle school, they received death threats. Let that sink in for a moment. Rhode Islanders, working for the health of all, received death threats for putting forward a regulation. Here is what I heard.

One friend spoke of a man, 26 years old, dying of cancer over the holidays in a hospital room because of the HPV virus. It was not likely that he would be around for 2018. One spoke of not having enough rounds of the shot so they were still susceptible to the virus, and had the virus. I heard from women who have had to endure Pap smears and cone biopsies every three months. On the other hand I have friends who I know are wonderful parents tell me that they’re worried that the vaccine is big pharma’s way to intrude on our lives. That it shouldn’t be mandatory, it’s too new, and it’s preventable if their child doesn’t “fool around.” I can see their worry, and understand that above all, parents want what is best for our children.

I spoke to a researcher who explained how much care is taken regarding side effects for drugs going into the market. “Not only are we under scrutiny from multiple committees and other organizations that pick through our research with a metaphorical fine toothed comb (and the tiniest citation issue they see, the tiniest data set not 100% perfect can get a paper rejected and we have to go back to the drawing board), but many of the people on the front lines are holding themselves to high standards because we genuinely want to do good for medicine.”

So what is a parent to do? Well the law is clear, your child needs to be vaccinated to attend a middle school. It is even recommended for most colleges. Yes, people can argue that it is a religious right to not vaccinate their child. When your child is at the age where they will be participating in sexual activities, without the vaccine they may unknowingly get the virus and pass it on to their future partners.

I’m not here to tell you to vaccinate against the HPV virus or not; however, I am here to remind you that in this new era where fake news is literally being fed to us from the White House, to do your due diligence and talk to your doctor. If you trust your doctor for every cold, flu and cut, you should trust your doctor on this issue. Don’t get your information from Facebook or Breitbart News or a celebrity. We all remember the news Jenny McCarthy made when she went public with her belief that vaccines cause autism. And I’m not here to hate on McCarthy, she’s a mom with a platform who truly thought she was doing something positive. As a mom I understand that; however, as a mom, I’ve never turned to anyone but an expert when it came to the needs of my child. Jenny McCarthy is delightful on “Donny Loves Jenny,” but that really speaks to my love of the ’80s, not my thirst for medical knowledge. Yes, there are dangers to everything, even a vaccine, but as the researcher I spoke to said, “I do see firsthand the research and treatment that goes into patients who develop cancers from HPV, which is somewhat infuriating for me when I see people saying the vaccine is dangerous or harmful. You know what else is dangerous or harmful? Cancer.”

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