This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
Some perspective is needed on the controversy over the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that arose after a recent Republican presidential debate. The best way to do that is to take sex out of the equation.
Instead of preventing a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer in women and oral cancer in men, let’s say the HPV vaccine guarded against a fictional virus that caused breast cancer and prostate cancer.
Wouldn’t most parents jump at the chance to decrease the chances of their children contracting those potentially deadly cancers? Only the most hard-core anti-vaccine holdout would say no.
Which gets us back to the sex part of the HPV equation and why some otherwise rational people don’t think children should be inoculated against it. They oppose the HPV vaccine – Cervarix or Gardasil – because they fear that removing one of the consequences of premarital sex would encourage it.
It’s a weak argument. The fear of STDs and pregnancy hasn’t put much of a damper on teens having sex, so it’s hard to see why the chance of developing cancer several years down the road would slow them down. They also know that smoking can cause lung cancer, but many still do it.
Sometimes parents have to do things to protect kids from themselves – and teens from their hormones. Most young people will not wait until marriage to have sexual relations; parents who think not getting their children vaccinated against HPV will deter them from having sex are gambling with their lives.
The anti-vaccine argument is a specious one on another level: It can protect those who don’t have premarital sex, too. An unvaccinated person who is a virgin on his or her wedding night can catch HPV from an infected spouse.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, HPV is the most common STD in the United States; approximately half of sexually active Americans will be infected with at least one strain of HPV at some point in their life – and many don’t even know it.
In most cases, the body’s immune system clears out HPV within two years, but in others it can lead to genital warts and a variety of cancers. It can even be passed on to unborn babies. Each year, HPV causes cervical cancer in 12,000 women. The five-year survival rate, with treatment, is about 72 percent. But many cases are diagnosed too late.
Some of the HPV vaccine debate has been about whether it should be mandatory, as other vaccines are for school-age children. The state of Washington does not require the HPV vaccine (a series of three shots) but does recommend it for females beginning at age 11 or 12 and males beginning at age 9. The vaccine is most effective if given before sexual activity begins.
Mandatory or not, the HPV vaccine can save lives. Parents who want to protect their children from potentially deadly cancers should have them inoculated.