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Is the HPV vaccine safe enough for our kids?

As her daughter nears her 11th birthday, Erin Stewart still on the fence on whether her daughter get the Gardisil shot.
As her daughter nears her 11th birthday, Erin Stewart still on the fence on whether her daughter get the Gardisil shot.

I always get my kids their shots. Always.

But as my oldest daughter gets close to her 11-year checkup, I’m still on the fence on whether I want her to receive Gardasil, the vaccine that protects against the human papillomavirus. Spread among sexually active adults later in life, HPV can cause cervical, anal, throat, penile and vaginal cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC now recommends girls and boys ages 11-12 get two doses of Gardasil. Vaccinating girls primarily protects against cervical cancer, and giving the shot to boys prevents them from spreading the virus and from certain forms of penile cancer.

If you type Gardasil into Google, you’re instantly carried away to a land of vehement opinions, where one side staunchly defends the safety and urgency of giving the shot to everybody, and the other side just as passionately decries its horrifying side effects.

So where does that leave a mother who just wants to do the right thing for her kid?

It’s left this mother completely unable to make up her mind. On the one side, I have many, many trusted sources telling me this vaccine is safe, effective and necessary. But on the other, I have this thing called mother’s intuition, and my gut is telling me I don’t know enough about Gardasil or HPV to give the green light.

So far, here’s where I’ve landed:

Why I’m being paranoid and should just get her the shot

1. My child’s pediatrician recommends it. In most situations in life, I find an expert that I trust, and then I actually trust them. Until now, I have always taken the medical advice of my children’s doctors because they know a lot more about it than I do.

2. My children have never had an adverse reaction to any other vaccine.

3. The data is on Gardasil’s side. CDC's website indicates that the organization conducted studies on nearly 30,000 participants before releasing Gardasil in 2006. They also continuously monitor side effects and complaints about the vaccine through three different evaluation systems. As of May 2010, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, for example, had received roughly 16,000 reports of adverse events following administration of Gardasil. Of those, 92 percent were considered nonserious, and 8 percent were serious (including 53 deaths). But there was no common pattern among those serious events to link them to Gardasil.

So, what’s the hold up?

1. The vaccine has only been used since 2006, which means we don’t really know the long-term effects of Gardasil on the reproductive or general health of those who were given the shot as pre-pubescent boys and girls. It just hasn’t been long enough.

2. As much as I wish they didn’t, the horror stories scare me. Yes, I know they aren’t verified or fact-checked, but it’s still hard to ignore the headlines that come up when you research Gardasil. Stories of young girls with shooting pains, unexplained neuro problems and paralysis terrify me. And while the numbers from the CDC are somewhat comforting, they’re not strong enough to block out the sound of these stories.

3. I vaccinate my children not only to protect them, but also because it’s part of being socially responsible. Look at how some diseases like measles are popping up again because of unvaccinated populations. But HPV is different. Not every case of the virus ends in cancer. The CDC says on its website that although most sexually active people will get HPV at some point, 9 out of 10 cases will go away on their own. So that leaves me with yet another question: Even if Gardasil is safe, is it necessary?

You’ll notice that my daughter’s anticipated sexual activity is not on either list. I’ve heard some moms (especially here in Utah) say they opted out of the shot because they don’t expect their children to have sex before marriage. This seems incredibly naïve to me and will not be a factor in my decision. I’d hate to miss protecting my child against cancer simply because I hope she won’t be sexually active.

But that still leaves me undecided. I’m sure there are doctors and scientists who will read this and believe I’m being insane and irresponsible. And there are anti-vaxxers who will say I’m letting Big Pharma make decisions for my children’s bodies.

The fact is, if I can protect my daughter from cancer, of course I want to do that. What mother wouldn’t? But the question that I keep coming back to is this: Is protecting her against a possible risk in the future worth the possible risk now?

I only wish I had the answer.

What are your thoughts on Gardasil? Am I being paranoid, or is my gut onto something?