Should Your Daughter Be Forced To Get the HPV Vaccine?

At a recent Republican presidential debate, candidate Michele Bachman railed against the government requiring young girls to receive the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. While most agree that Bachman engaged in unfounded fear-mongering about the vaccine's safety, there are legitimate concerns over whether or not the HPV vaccine should be required.

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What is HPV?

The most common sexually transmitted infection, HPV affects at least 50% of sexually active American during their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Approximately 20 million Americans are infected with HPV, with six million more becoming infected with each passing year. HPV is the primary cause of cervical cancer in women, which affects around 12,000 women each year, as well as genital warts in both sexes and other, less common cancers. Approximately 4,000 women die each year from cervical cancer.

About the Vaccine

Since 2006, an HPV vaccine has been available as a series of three shots. While a vaccine is available for boys, most of the attention is on girls due to the dangers of cervical cancer. The vaccine is most successful when administered to those between age 11 and 12. The HPV vaccine has proven highly effective in preventing the spreading of HPV. As a result, its widespread use could cause a dramatic decline in cervical cancer, genital warts and other cancers.

Controversy Over a Mandate

Despite strong support from the medical and public health communities, many are opposed to requiring HPV vaccination. When the first vaccine appeared on the market, many states attempted to link a vaccination requirement to school attendance, alongside vaccines for diseases such as measles and rubella. Only Virginia and the District of Columbia successfully passed such laws, though other states have related legislation on the books or pending.

The controversy generally emanates from a squeamishness over linking 11-year-old girls to a sexually transmitted disease. Many parents are reluctant to consider that their daughter is on the verge of becoming sexually active. This fear has manifested itself in speculative and largely unsubstantiated rumors about the vaccine. For example, there are some who believe the vaccine can be fatal, though the CDC found that 35 million young people have been vaccinated without a plausible link to any deaths.

Likewise, Michele Bachmann claimed the vaccine causes mental retardation, though that accusation has been shown to be baseless. The Republican candidate's true objection may be to government regulation. Her stance likely centers on a desire to allow Americans to choose whether or not they'd like to receive the vaccine, rather than on public safety.

A Common Sense Approach

The goal of administering the vaccine to young girls is to reach them before they become sexually active. While you may not consider your 11-year-old to be anywhere close to considering sex, that's the point of vaccinating now. Before the vaccine was available, approximately ten percent of American girls had already become infected with HPV by age 15. Almost 20% had HPV by age 17.

Requiring the vaccine could help reduce the spread of a highly infectious disease among the general population. Other tests, such as Pap smears and cervical exams, are also effective against cervical cancer, but they have drawbacks the vaccine lacks, such as invasive procedures and inconsistency of testing. While the thought of preparing for the sexually active years with a pre-teen may be uncomfortable, it's a responsible and safe decision that could save lives.

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