Gardasil isn’t a bad word. Nor is it going to make your child sexually active. It is empowerment in the form of a vaccination.
The human papilloma virus, more simply known as HPV, is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections worldwide, and causes cancer.
It is estimated over 50% of men and women will become infected with HPV at one point in their life. Gardasil, generically known as ‘HPV4’, provides protection against this virus. And, at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, it has the potential to save your child’s life.
However, since the US Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine against HPV, there has been debate about giving it to younger children. Many parents express confusion and concern about the recommendation to vaccinate all females ages 9 to 26 years and include the vaccination in routine pediatric immunization schedule for females ages 11 and 12.
So, why should we protect our daughters from HPV so early on?
While some strains are less harmful, others exhibit greater risks of causing cancer. There are over forty infective types of HPV, all of which can be transmitted through sexual contact and by hand. The virus is hardy. It can contaminate horizontal and vertical surfaces like computer tables, light switches, and door knobs, as well as easily infect our bodies. In order to be at risk for cervical cancer, the virus has to come into contact with the genital area, but once it does it can easily infect the area.
This is where the HPV4 vaccine comes in.
As suggested by its name, HPV4 protects against four major forms of HPV viruses – two of which are most commonly found in cervical cancers and two of which are commonly associated with genital warts. It is important to know some individuals may be exposed but may never become infected, and others who are infected may never develop warts or cancer. However we do not have a way to predict who will develop what, making it crucial we protect our daughters now that we can.
Many parents are fearful of potentially shameful consequences of offering reproductive and sexual health services to their daughters who are not yet married. Parents may fear allowing a daughter to receive the vaccine may cause her to become sexually active. However, a recent study published by the American Journal of Pediatrics found no relationship between sexual activity in adolescent girls and receiving HPV4.
Parents also ask why they should allow their daughter to receive the vaccine at such an early age if she is not sexually active and won’t be for several years to come. Though this may be true, the vaccine is necessary to help your daughter develop immunity and strengthen her body’s ability to fight HPV well before exposure. It gives her the best chance of fighting a likely exposure to the virus later in life.
If I’ve convinced you to ask your daughter’s healthcare provider about the vaccine – which I hope I have – you might be wondering what to expect. The vaccine is a series of 3 injections and is administered like a flu shot. If your daughter is sensitive to yeast, let her provider know as this vaccine should not be given to individuals with a yeast allergy. And remember as long as your daughter is 26 years old or younger, she is eligible to receive this potentially life changing vaccine.
What happens if your daughter learns she has been infected before she has gotten the vaccine?
She is still eligible to receive HPV4. Additionally, if she has been vaccinated (or not) and still tests positive for HPV, do not be alarmed. Her provider will know the next steps for follow-up screening and treatment. Your job as a parent is to be sure your daughter is getting an exam of her pelvis every year once she is sexually active OR reaches 21 years of age.
So why bother if the vaccine is not 100% effective? HPV4 significantly reduces your daughter’s risk of developing cervical cancer and has the potential to save her life.
Akka is a first-generation Indian American woman in a clinical doctorate program for nurse-midwifery. She is a licensed RN, certified family planning and HIV counselor, and has an MPH in International & Maternal-Child Health.
Image from NHS