No one wants to talk about it, but HPV (human papilloma virus) is common, sexually-transmitted, and can cause suffering and reduced quality of life. This is serious stuff, and you should take a moment to think about it now.
On The Huffington Post on Oct. 10, 2013, Katie Couric appropriately again raised the discussion on whether or not to have your child vaccinated against HPV. This question is also important for teenagers and young adults under 25 years old who have not previously been vaccinated, are making their own decisions about health, and are wondering themselves if they should receive the vaccine now.
There is no doubt that the vaccines work. They reduce cancers of the cervix, vagina and vulva in women, prevent ugly genital warts, and protect against the HPV infections that cause throat and mouth cancer, penis cancer, and cancers of the anus/rectum. Risks are very low, since serious reactions occur only three times in every 100,000 vaccinations. Since 79 million Americans have already been infected with HPV, there is a high chance that unvaccinated teenagers and adults will get infected sometime during their lifetimes.
What happens if a person gets infected? Usually, the body fights off the infection with antibodies, and there is no damage done. But here are what sometimes happens and the consequences of not getting the vaccine:
• A woman can develop cancer of the cervix, which requires surgery to treat, as well as many physician visits to get all the therapy and monitor for clearing of the cancer. Worse, some women need complete removal of their cervix, uterus, and ovaries, an extensive operation that prevents any pregnancy. Many patients need radiation therapy and chemotherapy, and some patients even die despite these treatments.
• A woman can have a cancer of the vulva or vagina, requiring very disfiguring and mutilating surgery to cure, and often preventing usual sexual intercourse and sexual satisfaction, permanently.
• A woman can develop genital warts, a disfiguring problematic condition that can reduce sexual appeal to partners.
• A man can develop penis cancer, requiring amputation of the penis. Of course, this is permanently disfiguring and prevents usual sexual intercourse and sexual satisfaction.
• Either a man or woman can be affected with throat or mouth cancer, like the condition that challenged actor Michael Douglas. This requires surgery and usually radiation and chemotherapy, and leaves a person with reduced saliva, decreased taste, loss of teeth, and often permanently disfiguring scars.
• A person can get cancer of the anus/rectum. This requires surgery and often radiation and chemotherapy. Many patients are left with a permanent colostomy and pelvic/rectal scars which will likely reduce their quality of life.
So in caring for your young child, boy or girl, would you want to take the chance of exposing them, later in life, to the problems listed above? Of course not! Think of the guilt and blame you and your daughter or son could feel, forever, if such a medical catastrophe were to occur.
So here are my tips for you to deal with this decision:
• Discuss HPV vaccination with your pediatrician when your child is over 8. Consider if the pediatrician has ever seen any side effects of vaccination and how such side effects can be prevented or managed.
• Think about the possible consequences of not getting the vaccine. Then make a choice of whether you want your daughter or son to receive the vaccine.
• Talk to your doctor about the costs and if the vaccine is covered by your insurance, either as routine care or as preventive care, or by prescription under your medication health benefit.
• If you are an older teenager or young adult and have not been vaccinated, discuss with your doctor if you can receive the vaccine. You may need a blood test or HPV test to see if you have already had an infection with HPV.
• Side effects are very, very rare. But if there are any symptoms after a vaccination, let the doctor know immediately so side effects can be treated appropriately.
You can prevent life-changing disasters that can occur with HPV infection. Lovingly think about giving your child protection for a beautiful and satisfying future.
For advice on how to how to raise these questions on HPV, communicate more effectively with your doctor, and get your physician to pay more attention to prevention, see my book "Surviving American Medicine." It can make these conversations much easier.