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Why getting the HPV vaccine for my sons was a no-brainer

Bryanne is a freelance writer who lives in Southern California with her active-duty husband and their two teenage sons. She is a passionate human-rights activist and cultural enthusiast. In between writing and family life, Bryanne spends...

Vaccinating my children felt a bit like practicing human sacrifice

My sons were 13 and 11 when their pediatrician, Dr. K, asked me if I would like to have them vaccinated against HPV.

“Wait, isn’t that the STD girls get?” I asked.

Dr. K was infamously blunt, to the point of agitating some parents, but his matter-of-fact nature was what I loved. I knew he wouldn't dance around important issues. He didn’t waste a seond before schooling me on the facts of HPV.

“No, HPV is not 'an STD that only girls get.' It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection in our country with over 100 strains, and (handing me a pamphlet) some strains of HPV can lead to genital warts, while others can turn into cancer. The vaccine (said while handing me another pamphlet) is important to administer before children become sexually active.” 

At the time, vaccinating my children felt a bit like practicing human sacrifice. There were so many stories in the news and celebrity activists touting a link between vaccinations and autism that admitting you vaccinated your kids, let alone were comfortable with vaccines, seemed heretical.

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While I’d never been on the “anti-vaxxer” bandwagon, admittedly, I was hesitant to sign them up for the latest and greatest immune-stimulating cocktail. My kids were at the newly awkward teenage phase where the opposite sex caught their attention more than their favorite video games. While my sons were indeed sexually inactive and at the prime age for the protective benefits of the vaccine, I wasn’t ready to agree to anything without arming myself with more knowledge.

Dr. K must’ve sensed my hesitation because he lowered his usually booming voice and told me to read the pamphlets, do my own research and to call him if I had any questions.

“The HPV vaccine Gardasil has a high record of safety and efficacy. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that anyone can write anything they want about vaccines, but you can always find the results from actual medical research online, too,” he said.

At home that evening, I read through the pamphlets and visited online medical journals to read about the clinical trials of Gardasil. The studies showed the vaccine was effective prevention against four HPV types: 6, 11, 16 and 18. A quick internet search on the CDC website today shows that the newest version of Gardasil, aptly named Gardasil 9, protects against HPV types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58.

As for side effects, there were few, and they were similar to those of other vaccines, such as fever, nausea, dizziness and pain at the injection site. After all the research, it seemed that saying yes to this vaccine would do more for my sons than not, especially given that nearly every single person who is sexually active in the United States will contract some form of HPV in their lifetime.

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Like with all vaccines, there are other, lesser known and potentially more dangerous side effects, including death. That’s scary and many parents may wonder why anyone would take such a risk. The World Health Organization (WHO) released data stating that out of the 20,096 reports of adverse side effects from Gardasil, only 8 percent (roughly 1,608 cases) can be considered “serious” and of those, 106 have reportedly died. Even with those reports, it is next to impossible to be certain that those deaths were actually caused by Gardasil.

In comparison, the National Safety Council released their annual "Odds of Dying" infographic that shows people have a 1 in 7 chance of perishing from heart disease and cancer, a 1 in 100 chance of death by intentional self-harm and a 1 in 112 chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident, just to name a few. It seems that being alive and going anywhere in an automobile is far more dangerous than getting vaccinated for HPV.

More: How to change skeptical parents' minds about vaccines

The next day, confident with my decision, I called the boys’ doctor and set up their first round of Gardasil shots. The entire process was simple. They received a shot in their right arm, waited for 15 minutes to make sure they didn’t pass out or feel light-headed, and then they went to school. About three months later they had their second shot, and three months after that — their third and final dose.

It’s now been five years since I had my sons vaccinated against HPV and they've remained symptom-free. In that time my oldest son became sexually active, and has not (to date) contracted a sexually transmitted disease or infection. I am thankful that along with knowledge about safe-sex practices, he also has the added immunity to certain strains of HPV that can lead to far worse diseases.

There is no doubt in my mind that vaccinating our children against preventable diseases and infections is the smartest thing we can do to help them stay healthy. I don’t regret vaccinating my sons against HPV and hope that more parents will do the research and decide if this protective measure is right for their children.

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