What could be more awkward than the discussion of pre-adolescent sex and cancer? Well specifically talk of the human papilloma virus (also known as HPV), which serves as the viral cause of most cervical cancers, is one of the more awkward and difficult subjects for parents, doctors and children alike.
Over the past few years, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that girls in pre-adolescence (around 11 or 12) receive the HPV vaccine (Gardasil) to protect them against particular strains of the virus known to cause cervical cancer. The idea is that if young girls are vaccinated prior to engaging in sexual activity (this is assuming that the vast majority of girls under the age of 12 have yet to have sex) they will avoid exposure to potentially lethal strains of HPV that are transmitted sexually (interesting note: it appears as if the makers of Gardasil are hard at work on a comparable vaccine intended for boys to help protect them from genital warts and other forms of cancer).
Recent news has revealed that along with parents who remain leery of a pre-adolescent vaccine for young girls, doctors are less than confident about administering the vaccine for many reasons. One of the sticking points is the question of how long the vaccine will remain effective once administered, and if it is advisable to administer a vaccine to an 11-year old who may not become sexually active until she is 16, well after the point where the vaccine would be most effective. To add to the general concern, the CDC has reported at least two deaths among young girls possibly related to the vaccine, and other doctors have voiced their apprehension about neurological problems related to the vaccine.
In addition, there is the whole hornets nest of highly emotional and moral issues surrounding a vaccine that presumes an active sex life for an adolescent girl. Needless to say, many parents have expressed moral outrage (as well as medical concern) when it comes to compulsory HPV vaccines for their girls. Some have seen this as license for, or a tacit approval of, unchecked teenage sexual shenanigans. Others worry that a vaccine of this sort will provide a false confidence among adolescents that they are somehow protected from sexually transmitted diseases.
While I am hardly a fervent advocate of wholesale vaccinations for everyone, I do see the potential value of a vaccine that is both safe and effective. However, we rarely have the luxury of both of these qualities wrapped up in one anodyne package. I assume people will remain vocal about the use (or lack thereof) of HPV vaccines until something radically shifts in the public consciousness or in the quality of the vaccine–or both.
I would love to hear from readers regarding this issue of HPV vaccines. Has anyone had to make this decision for his or her child? Do you feel it is ethical to have compulsory vaccines of this regard? Is there something inappropriate about vaccinating a young child against a potentially sexually transmitted disease? Should more testing be done before we start handing out “sex shots?”
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.