By Jennifer Drake, MD,
A large part of my job as a pediatrician is preventive care or the business of keeping healthy children healthy. I see well babies in the nursery. I talk about normal development so parents know what to expect. I discuss feedings and nutrition to help children grow and behavioral issues to help them thrive. And I recommend vaccines. Vaccines are one of the most successful developments of modern medicine and most parents agree they are an appropriate part of childhood preventive health. For many, this also includes the HPV vaccine.
HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a virus that causes genital warts and several types of cancers. It is a very common infection, affecting about 14 million Americans each year. According to the CDC, there are 11,000 cases of cervical cancer caused by HPV and 4,000 women die from this disease every year. In addition to cervical cancer, HPV can cause cancers of the vagina, vulva, rectum, penis and oropharynx. Annually, females develop over 20,000 HPV-related cancers and males are affected at a rate of 14,000 cancer cases. The HPV vaccine can prevent over 90% of these cancers. However, I see more hesitation to this vaccine than to most others. Enter the three-letter elephant in the room:
HPV is a sexually transmitted virus. What parent wants to think about their child contracting a sexually transmitted virus that could lead to cancer? Most parents do not want to think about the fact that their child could be, currently or in the future, sexually active. Therefore, they may not think this vaccine is necessary, as their son or daughter is not in the high-risk category. The HPV vaccine is routinely recommended for the 11 to 12-year-old visit. This does, of course, seem young to be crossing into these conversations for most children.
I get it.
As a mom, I understand not wanting to think about my own children being at risk for this. My personal reasoning for recommending this vaccine at this age, and for giving it to my own children as soon as they were able to receive it, is that the nature of vaccines is to work through prevention before the exposure is imminent. In my opinion, the best safeguard against HPV is to drastically reduce the risk of the threat through the vaccine.
As a parent, I hope to raise children who make wise decisions, ones that will keep them away from the risk of HPV and many other diseases. But, if they decide otherwise, or become the victim of an unfortunate assault, or even marry someone who is wonderful but has a past, they could still be at risk for contracting HPV and resulting cancers. Should there arise a situation outside of my choosing, we will have emotional, spiritual and medical issues to navigate— but the added worry of future cancer will not be among those challenges. For me, vaccinating my child against HPV could be a life-saving decision.
Parents struggle with the topic of adolescent sex and have an even harder time discussing a cancerous disease caused by it. Explaining a flu vaccine to your child is easy. But explaining an HPV vaccine means you are planning to have, or hopefully have already had, discussions about sex with your teens. Navigating the awkward “elephant in the room” discussions can be difficult for both parent and child. However, it may also create meaningful moments between the two of you and a deeper trust as a result. I can promise your child is hearing information— often incorrect or confusing— from their peers. To hear it from you, their parent, whom they trust and love, will make a big impression on them and what they think and believe about their own sexuality.
So, talk about it, protect your child from disease and cancer, and tame that elephant.
Jennifer Drake, MD, has been in practice with Augusta Pediatric Associates for nearly 18 years. Dr. Drake attended Georgia Tech in undergraduate studies, the Medical College of Georgia for her MD and trained at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for her pediatric residency. She is a mom to five beautiful children here in Augusta’s Garden City.