Birds, Bees, and the HPV Vaccine
There’s nothing quite like the prospect of a birds-and-bees talk with your child to give a parent butterflies. Now, Washington, D.C., and Virginia are all but forcing the conversation, requiring girls entering sixth grade this fall to be immunized against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV).
The vaccine is highly effective against the four most common strains of HPV. Along with causing genital warts on both women and men, the virus is the most common cause of cervical cancer, which affects about 11,000 women in the United States each year, and kills nearly 4,100.
“The goal of the vaccine is to reach girls before sexual activity begins,” said Nathaniel Beers, deputy director for policy and programs at the D.C. Department of Health. And the statistics of when that happens are enough to snap even the most lackadaisical parent to attention. Nationally, 7.1 percent of kids are having sex before age 13 (in D.C., the rate is 15 to 20 percent), and a nationwide survey by the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics shows that half of all teens, ages 15 to 19, have had oral sex.
Unlike other vaccines against polio or Hepatitis B, say, which parents can opt out of only for medical or religious reasons, the HPV vaccine can be turned down without cause, though in Washington parents must sign a waiver. Still, there has been a lot of public and parental angst ever since the Food and Drug Administration expedited approval of the vaccine Gardasil nearly three years ago. Within a few months, 25 states and D.C. had bills pending that mandated the vaccination of middle-school girls. But the speed with which the process progressed caused a backlash among parents’ rights groups, consumer safety advocates, and religious organizations pushing abstinence-only sex education.