by Corey Whelan
Not that I’m dramatic or anything, but I trust Dr. Steven Gelman with my life. Even more than that, I trust him with the lives of my children. Dr. Gelman has been their pediatrician for almost 14 years and has seen us through a lot. So of course his opinion has huge weight with me as it pertains to the HPV vaccine.
Yesterday I took Connor and Caitlin to see Dr. Gelman for that most predictable of rituals, the Back to School Well Child Exam. They put on hospital gowns, got their blood pressure checked, and had chicken pox booster shots given. A vaccine.
And then I asked Dr. Gelman if he had changed his positive recommendation about yet another vaccine, the one that has been in the news most recently, for protection against the HPV virus. He has not. And when will I be giving it to Caitlin, he wanted to know?
To be honest, I am nervous about giving Caitlin the vaccine and have been weighing the pros and cons for years, since the youth oriented, catchy “One Less” commercials hit the airwaves when she was about nine.
I’m a hold out.
I’m the only one of my friends who hasn’t done it yet. And it has crossed my mind that my hesitation may have its roots in my infertility experience.
I worked so hard to conceive these kids. When they were born prematurely it almost killed me. Hell, it almost killed them. Connor contracted an infection in the hospital from one of his intravenous needles and we didn’t think he would survive that.
And Caitlin. Caitlin had a SIDS incident on the day she got her second round of standard infant vaccinations. I was home alone with the kids and when her Apnea of Prematurity monitor went off I resuscitated her and she started to breathe again. It took either ten seconds from start to finish or ten years, I’m still not sure which. Was that a vaccine reaction? Who knows.
So now, when it comes to giving her a vaccine that has not been around for even a solid generation, I am nervous. I don’t want to do it.
Dr. Gelman says that it is inevitable, and he is probably right. But the recent headlines about the vaccine don’t give me a comfort level about this.
Don’t get me wrong, I am worried about cervical cancer. But I am also worried about another terrorist attack and sexual predators on the subway. I know that there are many things I can’t control or protect my kids from.
Are sexually transmitted diseases in that category? As a patient advocate I want to scream “Use Condoms!” from every rooftop to every teenager on the planet. Because that simple, pro active behavior will help to protect them not only from the HPV virus but from other sexually transmitted diseases, and therefore some forms of infertility as well.
The FDA has reported 28 deaths as a result of taking the HPV vaccine, out of 24 million doses being given. That’s a tiny statistic to be sure, but not so tiny if it’s your daughter. That’s 56 parents grieving the loss of a child. One hundred and twelve grandparents. Countless friends, relatives, school communities, all grieving the loss of a person that they loved. Not such a tiny statistic anymore.
So is there a bad guy here? We in this country are pretty quick to vilify pharmaceutical companies, we love to hate them, so should we feel uneasy about Merck’s extensive and targeted advertising campaign for Gardasil? Should we feel untrusting of the FDA ? The CDC? Or, should we be worried that the press has rushed to judgment on a slow news day to worry us about this vaccine unnecessarily?
I don’t know what’s right for anyone else. What I do know is that parents should have conversations with physicians that they trust about this issue, and that their daughters should be present for those conversations. And parents should also have frank conversations with their kids about sexually transmitted diseases, more than once.
I do know that teenage girls need to be allowed to participate in this decision about their own bodies, since their bodies are their own property, not their parents. Let your children know, over and over again, that using condoms will help them to avoid STD’s that can hurt them, and of course affect their fertility later on. Empower them to make safe choices. Will it work? Some of the time it will. Some of the time it won’t. But help to stack the odds in their favor by keeping the lines of communication open.
And then there is the leap of faith part. Did my daughter survive a vaccine reaction at four months of age, or was it a coincidence that she stopped breathing that day? Did my son’s autism result as a reaction from that same round of vaccines? Who knows.
Do I risk another vaccine?