Sixteen year-old Alaina Reyes sits on the gynecologist's exam table under a poster of girls with different body types that reads, "What's normal supposed to look like anyway?" Accompanied by her mother, Christine, Alaina is here for her first visit with Dr. Dianne Foley, an adolescent gynecologist, as she transitions from pediatric care.
"I don't know how much you've heard about this, but there's a new vaccine available for teens that immunizes against the human papillomavirus, HPV," Dr. Foley tells Alaina. "HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer." When Alaina communicates she's chosen to remain abstinent until marriage, Dr. Foley replies, "HPV isn't as big a concern for you as for someone who's had multiple sexual partners. That's where we see the highest risk."
However, Dr. Foley tells Alaina that even though she doesn't fit this risk category, one argument for getting the vaccine is the unknown of her future spouse's sexual choices. It's possible to get HPV from only one sexual partner if that partner was infected through previous sexual activity. Another potential risk is sexual assault.
Many Christian women and their daughters, like Christine and Alaina, are trying to make an informed decision about this controversial new vaccine. Here are some important facts and issues worth considering.
The Virus and the Vaccine
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 6.2 million people are infected each year, and at any given time about 20 million people have it. It's now known to cause almost 100 percent of cervical cancer, although most HPV infections clear up on their own before becoming precancerous. Ten thousand women get cervical cancer and 3,700 die from it each year, according to the National Cancer Institute. Currently there's no test to determine if men have HPV.
Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, is a three-shot immunization given over six months. It protects against four strains of HPV that cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers and 90 percent of all genital warts. To be fully effective, Gardasil needs to be administered at least seven months before a girl becomes sexually active. The Advisory Council for Immunization Practices (ACIP), the group that advises the CDC on immunization practices primarily for physicians and health departments, universally recommends the vaccine for 11- and 12-year-olds and has approved it for ages 9-26. This is our first vaccine for a cancer.