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The Vaccine That Gave Me Pause

It was never a question for us—the pediatrician would say the girls were due for this vaccine or that one, and we’d hold Mari and Lila and comfort them while the nurses pumped their arms or their legs with the protective brews. It was very simple: Kids get and pass along all kinds of cooties from one to the other; the shots would protect our babies from both contracting and spreading said cooties. Honestly, it never occurred to us to question their safety. The worst thing that’s ever happened to our daughters after getting a shot? The nurse ran out of Princess Tiana band-aids for the girls’ boo boos.

So I feel like a crap mom when I try to explain why I’ve been dragging my feet on giving our pediatrician the O.K. to give Mari a series of shots doctors say will protect her from HPV, a sexually-transmitted disease that happens to be one of the leading causes for cervical cancer. The shots are supposed to be given to girls sometime between ages 11 and 12, before they become sexually active and put themselves at risk for getting the disease. My pediatrician, an amazing doctor and mom who insists she plans on giving the vaccine to her own daughters when they’re old enough, has been at me for two years to give the series of shots—three in all, administered six months apart—to my 12-year-old, and each time, I’ve hesitated. Said, “let’s wait one more year.”

My concerns: The HPV vaccine is relatively new—I mean compared to those for polio, the measles, chicken pox, and pertussis. How do I, as a mom, pump a drug into my baby that I’ve never been exposed to myself? And how do I bring myself to trust that the vaccine won’t harm her over the long-term, particularly considering that it’s a mere baby on the market?

Plus, the truth of the matter is that I’ve been reading way too many stories of late about the U.S. government’s involvement in experiments and medical procedures meted out unknowingly on people of color across the globe: women sterilized against their will in Puerto Rico; Guatemalans intentionally given syphilis in experiments that eerily resembled the Tuskegee syphilis experiments conducted on black men through the early 1970s; black children purposely exposed to dangerous levels of lead and, despite severe cases of lead poisoning, left untreated by the doctors studying their effects. These things happened in my parents lifetime. My lifetime. In the case of the black children, just years before I gave birth to a black child of my own.

These are the things running through my mind when the needles come out. Particularly when it involves my daughters.

But then, a few weeks ago, Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, candidate for the Republican 2012 presidential nomination and self-proclaimed Mama Bear who, when it comes to policy that directly affects mothers and children, always seems to fall on the wrong side of doing right by us, made me see just how dumb, unreasonable and dramatic I’m being when it comes to the HPV vaccine. During a nationally-televised Republican nominee debate, she spoke vehemently against making the vaccine mandatory, and later said in an interview with Fox News that someone told her that her kid suffered retardation after receiving the vaccination.

Listening to Bachmann made me realize how stupid I sound making grand pronouncements about my reservations with the HPV vaccine without doing so much as a simple Google search to check out the prevailing wisdom on its safety. It sure didn’t seem like Bachmann had bothered; twice, she repeated that story about this mystery mom telling her that her daughter suffered HPV vaccine-induced retardation. Since then, she’s neither produced the mom nor has she offered even a shred of research or evidence to back up her words.

I’m better than this.

So I Googled (of course) and came across a report from the Centers For Disease Control detailing reports, tests and statistics on the HPV vaccine, Gardasil. As of June 22, 2011, 35 million doses have been administered, with 18,727 reports of adverse effects. Ninety-two percent of the adverse effects were considered “non-serious” events like fainting, pain, swelling at the injection site, headache, nausea and fever. The remaining 8 percent of those who had problems after getting the shots reported blood clots, the contraction of the neurological disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and death.

Still a little shaken by that miniscule but real number of girls who had serious problems after getting the vaccine, I asked a friend of mine if she could arrange for me to talk to an expert on HPV, gynecological issues and the vaccine, and she hooked me up with Dr. Vanessa Cullins, the vice president of medical affairs at Planned Parenthood. Dr. Cullins was gracious enough to answer my many concerns, and actually made a really sound case for why I should roll up my daughter’s sleeve and get with the Gardasil. First, she allayed my fears about the historical legacy of harmful medical studies by reminding me that the drug has been around for five years and that before that, it had gone through extensive clinical trials in both animals and humans before it hit the market. “Besides,” she added, “more white females have received this vaccine than black ones.”

That more black girls aren't getting vaccinated is sad, she added, because while the numbers of black women who get cervical cancer are less than their white counterparts, black women are more likely to die from the disease. Plus, a 2008 study on sexually-transmitted diseases found that almost half of black girls between ages 15 to 19 had an STD, and about 70 percent of those cases were HPV—the very disease the vaccine was created to prevent.

Now, I remember being shocked by that number when I saw that study a few years ago—remember asking myself where in the hell we were going wrong that nearly half of black teenage girls were not only carrying a sexually-transmitted disease, but getting it through unprotected sexual intercourse. My assumption—as advanced by the myriad of media outlets that reported the study and took great pains to stigmatize young black girls in the process—was that black girls were strutting around having unprotected sex and spreading diseases like gonorrhea, chlamydia and herpes all around their high schools. But as Dr. Cullins pointed out, the fact of the matter is that the STD primarily associated with the black girls in that study was, indeed, HPV—a disease that you can get pretty easily without having sex. “HPV is an extremely common disease and you get it from skin-to-skin contact, not just sexual intercourse,” Dr. Cullins said. “That’s why it’s so important to give it to kids before they become sexually active. They get their breast buds and the hair beneath their arms and the growth spurts and those hormones start raging and the next thing you know they’re starting to kiss and hold on to each other and little boys might start fingering their vagina—they might experiment without going all the way. That’s how easily HPV can spread.”

In other words, black teenage girls aren’t insatiable whores spreading their legs and disease to anyone who looks in their direction; HPV is an easily-contracted disease that causes cervical cancer; and my daughter is in the group that is severely affected by both the disease that can cause the cancer and the cancer that could kill her.

Am I still afraid of the vaccine? I’m not going to lie—I am. But I’m more scared of what could happen to my daughter if I don’t take responsibility and get her vaccinated. The numbers don’t lie. The chances of the vaccination causing a neurological problem in my daughter is miniscule compared to the 50% chance of her contracting HPV when she becomes sexually active, and that case of HPV turning into a cancer that can take her life.

*insert image of Denene dialing the pediatrician here*

For more of Denene's musings on parenting, check out her personal blog,