My young daughter will be entering middle school in another year. However, she still likes coloring books. If she watches a scary movie, I have to lay with her in bed until she falls asleep.
She is still just a kid. Should I really be worried about HPV? Is this something you should consider for your daughter?
As an OB/GYN doctor, I know about the HPV virus and have seen so many patients affected by this virus that can cause cervical cancer if left untreated. I have seen women die from cervical cancer caused by this virus. I have seen pregnant women who are newly diagnosed with cervical cancer have to decide whether to delay treatment or potentially risk their pregnancy by treating the disease.
Most people know that the HPV virus is sexually transmitted. However, most people don’t think it could happen to their daughter. Unfortunately, more than 80 percent of the population has been exposed to the HPV virus during their lifetime. How is that possible?
Well, let’s assume your daughter has one lifetime sexual partner. Let’s pretend her future husband only had one girlfriend prior to meeting your daughter. However, maybe his previous girlfriend had five partners, and who knows how many exposures those five partners had.
Now it’s easy to see that you don’t have to be sexually promiscuous to be exposed to HPV. It could happen to anyone and often does. HPV is silent (there are often no symptoms), and people don’t know they have it and therefore pass it on to others unknowingly.
Luckily, most of the time we can monitor the HPV virus through pap smears/HPV testing and never have to intervene as the body will often clear the virus on its own. Occasionally, treatment in the form of excisional procedures on the cervix is necessary to prevent progression to cervical cancer. If you have never seen a LEEP procedure done in the office, trust me, you want to spare your daughter from this if at all possible.
By the time a girl visits her OB/GYN’s office, she may have already been exposed to HPV, and we potentially missed an important opportunity to give the vaccine. This is due to the fact that we typically don’t see teens in the office unless they are having a problem, and we don’t start pap smear screening until age 21 (appropriately so).
Pediatricians do a fantastic job of making sure our young girls are getting the vaccine when indicated. Currently, the vaccine can be given to girls between the ages of 9 to 26 years old. Most girls are vaccinated with the series at age 11 or 12. Remember, the point is to vaccinate far prior to sexual activity. We don’t expect your 11-year-old daughter to be sexually active.
On the other hand, I have had to do numerous procedures on patients in their 20s who have precancerous lesions from the HPV virus. Most are shocked and terrified and don’t understand how this could have happened to them.
As a mother, I am just like any other parent who would do anything to prevent my child from suffering. I worry about risks and benefits of treatments (even preventative) and how they will affect my daughter. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to truly understand the research and risks behind this vaccine through extensive training in obstetrics and gynecology.
It is also empowering to have access to a vaccine that can actually prevent cancer.
So, while the physician in me appreciates and understands the research and clinical implications this vaccine portends, when I counsel patients, I find the mother in me also weighing in.
Since I do have a young daughter who I would do anything to protect, I can assuredly say that she will be getting her HPV vaccine when she turns 11. I want to know that I did my job as her mother to protect her when she can’t yet understand how this may impact her life down the road.
Valerie A. Jones is a obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at OB Doctor Mom.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com