HPV Vaccine: A Tween Dilemma

HPV Vaccine: A Tween Dilemma

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I wasn’t ready to think about my child having sex

My son recently turned 12, so I followed our annual regimen and scheduled his well-child visit. Nothing exciting; it’s the same protocol I’ve followed since his birth. Eye exam, hearing screening, blood draw, flu shot: check.

The unexpected dilemma

His pediatrician entered the exam room, we engaged in the obligatory small talk, the physical was completed, and I was grateful to hear that my son continues to be in excellent health. As I was closing my purse, the doctor said, “Would you like him to receive the HPV [human papillomavirus] vaccine today or next year?” I felt an immediate rush of panic and discomfort. It was a not-so-subtle nudge that the good doc expected a quick answer: today or next year. Two options on a major vaccine, really? What about turning down the vaccine altogether? Apparently, that option was not being offered.

I was dumbfounded by the doctor’s question. I’d like to think that my super mom cape gives me special powers, such as not being caught off guard by vaccine announcements. Clearly, I need to get my cape checked. As I sat there, questions flashed before me like Facebook Live emojis: Can you remind me what HPV is? Why would my son need an HPV vaccine? Do all 12-year-old boys need to be vaccinated for HPV? What are the side effects? Is it mandated by the state? What happens if I refuse the vaccine? Why am I being blindsided when all I want to do is go get frozen yogurt?

This was one of those days when being a Solo Mom felt heavy. I was overwhelmed by the responsibility to make such an important decision on behalf of my son. Certainly, I make complex decisions about his well-being all the time, but this was different. I needed to engage with other parents whom I trust and respect. Perhaps they’d completed research on the vaccine, and it would help me navigate these uncharted waters.

What is HPV?

When I got home, I started my research at ground zero. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “HPV is a very common virus that spreads between people when they have sexual contact with another person.” About 14 million people, including teens, become infected with HPV each year. HPV infection can cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers in women; penile cancer in men; and anal and throat cancers and genital warts in both men and women. The CDC states that the vaccine is for the protection from most cancers caused by the HPV infection. It goes on to say that the HPV vaccines (three have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration) have been studied very carefully and show no serious safety concerns.

The information I discovered only increases my questions and anxiety about the decision to vaccinate. The data shows that boys are receiving the vaccine at much lower rates than their female counterparts. This trend may be because parents of boys are not being educated about the vaccine in the same manner as are the parents of girls.

I’ve completed my research and spoken with fellow super moms, and here’s the scoop.

Pro-vaccine discoveries

1. The vaccine has drastically reduced the acquisition of certain cancers in both men and women. Since our children will one day be sexually active, this is great news.

2. Getting the vaccine as a tween is a good thing. Doing so ensures that children are fully protected before they become sexually active.

3. The vaccine opens the conversation about sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases at an early age. Engaging in a dialogue based on medical data may make the exchange with our children a little more comfortable.

4. The vaccine can be given to patients up to the age of 26. The recommended age is between nine and 12, but it’s good to know the option is there for parents who may not be ready to have their child vaccinated.

5. The vaccine is covered by health insurance. The Vaccines for Children (VFC) program may be able to help uninsured families.

Anti-vaccine discoveries

1. The vaccine is relatively new. The first generation started being administered in 2006. It will be quite some time before science can gauge if there are side effects we aren’t aware of yet.

2. The vaccine creates ethical issues. Particularly for those whose family’s religious beliefs encourage abstinence until marriage, the vaccine raises ethical questions and stirs debates.

3. The vaccine contains aluminum. This may be a concern for parents who have reservations about the amount of aluminum in a given dose.

4. The vaccine does not protect against all HPV types. Some cervical cancers, therefore, will not be prevented even for those who have been vaccinated.

5. Side effects after injection have been reported. They include fainting, dizziness, and nausea.

Exhale and release worry

This is a lot of information to digest, but it’s better to be armed with as much information as possible. It’s been an interesting revelation to discover so many other parents I know were also unprepared when their pediatricians offered the vaccine to their children. The consensus among my village of moms and dads is split. Many parents have decided to vaccinate their children in hopes that they can protect them from even the slightest risk of cancer down the road. The other half has decided they don’t feel the risk of vaccinating is worth the perceived reward. Parents will continue to have differing opinions on the HPV vaccination. What should not be debated is the more information we have, the better, because in one way or another this vaccine will affect all our children.

I still haven’t decided whether I will vaccinate my son. No matter what my decision the next time I return to the pediatrician, I will have lots of questions and will share my concerns about the office not doing more to educate parents of tweens on the topic in advance. I’ve enjoyed hearing varying thoughts on the vaccine. It’s been the open dialogue that reassures me there is no right or wrong answer.

I’ll continue to ride this roller coaster called parenting the best way I know how, with all its ups, downs, twists, dips, and fleeting moments of ecstasy, as it’s still a wondrous ride. I’ll make the decision about the HPV vaccine like I’ve made all parenting decisions thus far: with a whole lot of faith, trust in my instincts, and the courage to never look back.

What have you decided about the HPV vaccine for your tweens and teens?

Kai McGee, J.D. is a writer whose work has appeared on Motherwell, Blunt Moms & My Brown Baby, among others. She is also a breast cancer survivor who actively volunteers with The American Cancer Society’s: Reach to Recovery program. In her past life, she was a lawyer/executive. When she’s not writing, she enjoys photography, traveling and lazy mornings in bed watching the food network. She resides in South Florida with her tween son and canon camera. Connect with her on Instagram @onanaturalkai

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