Ever done a Google image search for HPV? I have. What you see will astonish you if you've got the stomach to get past more than one page. Why on earth would I do such a thing? Because it's been on my mind for about a year. In 2007 I wrote a post about the then new HPV Vaccine that was going to be administered to high school girls island-wide. It was an ambitious campaign like nothing we'd ever seen before and it was spearheaded by the Department of Public Health, with the full support of the community, youth groups and the Public School System.
I had an unusual reaction to all of it, quite opposite of what you'd expect from an educator. I responded with a mother's heart, worrying about the short/long term side effects of the drug, the infringement on parental rights, the lack of longitudinal studies surrounding the drug and the enriching of pharmaceutical companies. It all sounded like a conspiracy, this mass vaccination. I got defensive. The real truth was that I felt a sense of misplaced arrogance towards anyone who dared to challenge my parenting. I truly believed that if I taught my daughters how to be sexually responsible women they would not need to worry about contracting STDs. STDs were for "loose" girls, girls who weren't raised in Christian homes, girls who weren't taught the virtue of virginity, the sanctity of marriage or a sense of self-respect. My girls would grow up to be monogamous and so would their husbands.
On the way to work today I listened to guests from the Centers for Disease Control and thought about some of the fears I had regarding Gardasil and the HPV campaign. I tried to be objective about my own misconceptions and balance them out with the legitimate fears I had. Then today during work, the same guests came to share the news that the CNMI's campaign was so successful the CDC had to visit to see what we'd done. It was shared with us that among the at-risk population (young girls), the CNMI has achieved an 80% success rate for prevention. Those aren't just good statistics, they're downright amazing. Does it mean that our young girls will grow up to be (cervical) cancer free? If it does, then we've extended the years that hundreds of families could spend together. If it does, then we've given future mothers more time to raise their children and play with their grandchildren. If it does, then we've saved our medical institutions millions of dollars in health care/disease intervention and treatment. It means that old women will live longer lives and die natural deaths.
I'm still admittedly skeptical. The findings aren't conclusive, we don't have enough years of data and what the critics out there have to say is pretty scary. I'm weighing the risk between making sure my daughters never get cervical cancer or possibly becoming infertile. I always thought I'd be able to protect my children, and for the most part I can just by talking with them and trusting that they will make good choices. I realize however, that we can't control everything that happens in our lives and the dangers of HPV do not just come from unprotected, promiscuous sex. Humans can have a more devastating effect than any virus on earth. There are people out there who have the ability to convince others that the risk of getting cervical cancer from HPV is lower than that of getting killed in a car wreck. There are people who will sacrifice the lives of others to suit their own selfish desires. Will my girls gaze lovingly into someone's eyes one day and gamble their lives away for a few empty promises? Lastly, am I willing to take that chance?
It's not easy to make these decisions, to put your children in the hands of scientists, no matter how well intentioned they are. Although I've changed my mind about the benefits of the vaccine, I feel the same anxiety I did two years ago. I feel anxiety about every decision I make that affects the welfare of my children because they are irreplaceable.