Contagion and a Coin Flip: The Ironic HPV Debate
My first job on a real payroll was related to a virus. My town’s chapter of the American Red Cross was moving to a new building and wanted to donate their handwritten records from the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic to the local historical society. So, every day after school I’d walk there and type the records into a dinosaur of a word processor.
The job itself was boring as heck, but the information was fascinating: name, sex, age, number of children, next of kin, did the patient survive? Very often the answer was no. That virus infected more than a quarter of the US population.
That job – combined with the 1995 movie Outbreak, a great Anatomy and Physiology class in high school, and too many hours swooning over Dr. Carter on ER – started my interested in public health.
A year later, trying to spread info about another virus as a peer educator, I got to see the intersection of politics and public health. School officials weren’t keen on students learning about HIV. I couldn’t understand why some viruses were worthy of prevention and some weren’t. I still don’t.
That’s why I find it amazing that our number one movie at the box office, Contagion, deals with a pandemic virus and the superhero epidemiologists trying to stop it, while our TV talking heads and Republican primary candidates argue about whether or not we should be fighting a virus that is even more widespread than the one in the movie – Human Papillomavirus (HPV).
I won’t go into the overwhelming evidence of the HPV vaccine’s safety or its effectiveness. I’ll let experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics or the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) answer that one. They’ll all tell you it’s safe, effective, wise, and necessary.
And luckily, at the point I’m writing this, good journalists and talking heads (even Rush Limbaugh) are laying the stupidity smackdown on the idea that the vaccine is unsafe.
The current debate centers around the individual young person receiving the shot or the parent’s decision to provide the vaccine. I’m not knocking informed personal health decisions – they’re important. But talk sparks suspicion and suspicion can be dangerous.
The complete individual focus is disappointing. Vaccines, of course, also serve the function of stopping the spread of viruses. Put in a more pointed way: Sure you don’t want your kid to get cancer, but this isn’t all about your kid.
Conservative estimates show that 50% of sexually active people will get HPV. Some estimates are closer to 75%. Both boys and girls can catch it, spread it, and can get cancer from having it.
And the risk is undeniable:
- 33% of 9th graders in North Carolina have already had sexual intercourse. By 12th grade, 68% of them have.
- Half of all US teens had oral sex before their first sexual intercourse, and 70% and 63% of 18-19 boys and girls, respectively, have had oral sex.
- North Carolina doesn’t survey its students on their oral or anal sex habits. We do know that North Carolina students, when compared to their national peers, are more likely to have sex, more likely to have sex before age 13, more likely to have four or more partners, and less likely to use condoms.
- And if you’re feeling icky about all these youth-focused stats, just consider that 98% of all people in the US will be sexually active and most adults have had multiple sexual partners (4-6 on average for US adults).
That’s a lot of sexual activity. And half of the participants in that sexual behavior will contract a virus – a virus they can then spread to other young people.
It makes no sense to leave contagion to a coin flip when we have a safe, effective vaccine.
To learn more about accessing the HPV vaccine, visit the CDC’s HPV vaccination info page.
No one wants to spread disease, but HPV is usually self curing in a matter of months, and regular medical checks can prevent it from developing into cervical cancer. Why risk our children's lives for a remote risk?
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