Recent outbreaks of mumps, measles and other diseases have galvanized support for increased vaccinations among Americans. Many are even calling for childhood vaccinations to be required under the law; a California law passed last year requires children enrolling in public school or daycare to be vaccinated. The state, along with Mississippi and West Virginia, does not allow students to be exempt from vaccinations on the basis of personal or religious exemptions. Similar statutes are being considered across the country.
The rising support for vaccinations and disease prevention is a step in the right direction, but very little attention has been given to vaccinations for human papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV. HPV is an incurable virus commonly transmitted through sexual contact. Although not everyone will suffer from physical symptoms, many with the infection develop lesions that progress into cervical, vulvar, vaginal, penile or anal cancers. Two strains of HPV cause more than 70 percent of cervical cancer cases.
Although several studies agree that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States and causes thousands of cancer-related deaths, most American youth still do not receive the vaccine.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends both boys and girls between 11 and 12 years-old receive the vaccine but the CDC has found only 35 percent of adolescent girls and 14 percent of boys are immunized. Not only is this number extremely small in comparison to other vaccination types but it needlessly places millions of Americans at risk of cancer.
The low rate of vaccinations result from intense resistance not supported by data. Many conservative and Christian groups like the Family Research Council discourage the vaccine due to the belief that it encourages premarital sex and promiscuity. These groups are small but very vocal, causing only a handful of states to require school children to receive the vaccine. Even states like Rhode Island, that successfully passed such mandates, are now dealing with a huge level of controversy.
The stigmatization of the HPV vaccine has not only made immunization policies ineffective but has caused an increasing number of parents to opt out of the vaccine for nonmedical reasons. Some have safety concerns due to the widespread misconception that vaccines cause increased rates of autism. These claims have been widely discredited, but the controversy still causes many parents to avoid vaccinations altogether. However, most refusals of the HPV vaccine in particular are a result of the sexually transmitted nature of the disease. Our society places an enormous stigma on sexual activity, and parents are unwilling to discuss sexual health with their children.
These social taboos even affect pediatricians, the very individuals who are most knowledgeable about these vaccines and their benefits. A study published last year in the journal Preventative Medicine found only 13 percent of physicians considered HPV vaccines to be important enough to discuss with parents and it took almost twice as long to discuss HPV as in comparison to other childhood vaccines. Since discussions about HPV are often time-consuming, discouraging or even hostile, many physicians will only bring up the vaccination at the very end of an appointment, almost as an afterthought. For parents who are socially pressured and on the fence about immunizations, this behavior signals a lack of confidence.
As a society, we must fight against the stigmatization of childhood vaccines and sexual health. The health of our country’s youth should take the highest priority, no matter how puritanical one’s views may be. These same taboos also prevent open discussions about consent, contraception, gender identity, and sexual identity. These topics have now become integral parts of our society, and they cannot simply be willed away. Intentionally ignoring these issues prevents proper education from taking place, and future generations will suffer.
When we examine the HPV vaccine as a society, it is vital for us to focus on the facts that have been proven through meticulous research and scientific study. HPV vaccines prevent many aggressive types of cancer and have not encouraged higher levels of sexual activity. Many Americans who engage in premarital sex will contract HPV and these individuals cannot be cured and can pass on the virus to others. These immunizations must be treated with the same level of respect as other childhood vaccines, and widespread social attitudes cannot get in the way of our children’s health and well-being.
Justin Joseph, Contributing Columnist