I've always been wary of vaccines. We did choose to vaccinate our children, but at a much slower pace than the suggested multiple-shots-per-doctor's-visit. It's not that I wanted to cause a mumps outbreak in my city; I wanted to slow things down, to have some control over the amount of stuff entering my kids' bodies. I wanted to be able to watch for individual reactions, not wonder which vaccine did what if some adverse reaction did happen post-shot. But let me tell you something: The moment my oldest son turns 11-years-old? He's getting the Gardasil vaccine.
I'll follow suit with his younger brother two years later. No hesitation. It's going to happen.
Credit: Photo by Julien Cassagne/Maxppp/ZUMA Press. (©) Copyright 2006 by Maxppp
I didn't always feel this way. When they first started marketing Gardasil for girls and women, I felt relieved. "Well, I'm parenting boys! I don't have to worry about that one!" Wrong answer. Soon they started talking about how boys needed to get the shot as well. "Crap," I thought. My next thought was, "No way! It's too new. I'm not subjecting my sons to some medical testing shot gone wrong! Nope. Not happening."
See? Wary. Of vaccines, of the medical marketing world, of doctor's who portray themselves as superhuman but are actually just plain old humans -- fallible like me.
Fallible like me.
I've since changed my thoughts, my initial reaction fallen by the wayside as initial reactions are wont to do.
Truth: I care about my sons' future significant others. I don't want a mistake that a son of mine might make in high school or in college or beyond to negatively affect the health of the person he chooses for life. If a series of three shots helps my sons' future spouse avoid the horrors that Momo's family went through, I'm okay with it all.
But more than these hypothetical future partners, I care about the health of my sons. I kind of want to cheer for Michael Douglas right now for bringing up the point that HPV causes cancer in males as well. Beyond the more rare -- but deadly -- penile and anal cancers associated with HPV, Douglas choosing to speak up about HPV and throat cancer due to oral sex has changed the conversation. For the better. Because now parents of boys everywhere are forced to face the reality -- not the imaginary future spouse. We are forced to think about our own sons, our sons' health, our sons well-being. We are forced to make decisions based on their contraction of a disease, not their passive, silent passing of the cancer-causing virus.
Of course, the argument I am sometimes faced with by well-meaning people is that giving them the vaccine will cause them to be sexually active. I laugh at that line of thinking. These are also the people who think that teaching kids how babies are made or information about contraceptives or even -- gasp -- abortion will cause sexual activity in our youth. No, these things do not cause sexual activity. Silence about the realities of the long-term consequences of sex -- from HPV to herpes to HIV to other STDs to babies -- surely doesn't postpone sexual activity either. Shaming and guilt brought about by abstinence based education don't do anything for our daughters or our sons. Purposeful misinformation doesn't help our children avoid sexual activity; it sets them up for failure. Not just failure with regards to sexual health or unwanted pregnancies, but a core failure of self, of shame even in the confines of marriage. As Swistle points out, there are also issues of sexual assault to consider, among other things. No, a shot meant to help our future generations avoid the horrors of cancer isn't going to cause the youth of our world to run naked into the streets and sleep with anyone they please. Hormones cause that, silly.
And so, ignoring the "they'll have all the sex" argument, we're left with the side effects. I acknowledge they exist. The same way that I purposefully chose a slow progression of immunizations for our sons to allow me to watch for side effects, I will watch them closely in the wake of their three Gardasil shots for vomiting or dizziness or wheezing or other side effects. Like all vaccines, the cases of severe reaction -- beyond the achy, fevery, bleh reaction -- are rare. Like Neal Fowler, survivor of an HPV-caused tonsil tumor, stated in an interview in Forbes last year,
“We’ve got this two- or three-decade window where more and more of these patients like myself are going to emerge,” says Fowler. “To me the [vaccine] risk is minimal, and I’d say, why not do that?”
And so, I commend Michael Douglas for his recent public discussion of oral sex and HPV. Perhaps now parents of sons will look at this issue with less of a "save other parents' daughters" outlook -- which I found on multiple, semi-outdated websites while researching this piece -- and more about saving their own sons from HPV. Of course, as with all vaccinations, other parents have the right not to vaccinate their children. It's actually those people who will make having the conversation about being safe and selective -- if not avoiding sex altogether for quite some time -- easier; without the risk of your unvaccinated teen or young adult infecting my teen or young adult, the leverage of my arguments seems less important.
Whether you choose to vaccinate your sons or your daughters, HPV doesn't seem to be going away just yet. With 79 million Americans infected and 14 million new infections per year, HPV will be a part of our reality for generations to come.
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