Girls as young as 9 may still be playing princess, but they’re old enough to be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer.
That’s the conclusion of an advisory committee of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which on Thursday recommended broad immunizations to protect against the human papillomavirus virus, known as HPV.
Girls ages 11 and 12 should routinely receive the newly licensed vaccine, called Gardasil, the committee agreed. The recommendation also allows vaccination beginning at age 9 and up to 26, according to the CDC. It’s aimed at preventing the nearly 10,000 new cases of cervical cancer and 3,700 deaths that occur in the U.S. each year.
“We were really anticipating that,” said Dr. Kim Thorburn, health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District, who expects shipments of the new drug to arrive soon. “This is an absolutely thrilling vaccine.”
But whether local girls should be immunized was the subject of sharp debate among Inland Northwest residents and parents, including those who welcomed the vaccine and those who feared it would encourage early sexual activity.
“I would no more get this vaccine for one of my daughters than I would give them a bottle of Jack Daniels on a Friday night just because ‘most of the other kids are drinking,’ ” said Janice Dvuanich, 47, a Spokane mother of five, including three adult daughters.
Vaccinating against HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, would send the wrong message to youth, said Michael Smith, a Spokane father of two young sons.
“Maybe we have given up on our children too easily and lowered our expectations too easily, which shifts the burden from parent and teacher from teaching our kids the best behavior,” he said.
Others, however, were adamant that protecting women’s health is the first priority.
“As the parent of two daughters, the approval of the HPV vaccine is happy news at my house,” said Cindy Fine, 50, a Spokane community health nurse and mother of daughters ages 16 and 21. “Do I think my daughters will be sexually active adults? Yes. Do I want them to be protected against cervical cancer? Yes. The ‘debate’ about causing 9-year-olds to become sexually active is nothing more than a red herring from the abstinence-only-until marriage folks who apparently value their dogma over the lives of their daughters.”
Immunizing against HPV is no different than providing protection against measles, mumps or diphtheria, said David Camp, 49, a Spokane advertising executive and father of an 8-year-old daughter.
“Of course I would want my daughter vaccinated – and now I do,” he said. “In what possible way does this encourage sexual activity? By keeping it potentially lethal? That’s a warm, charming way to express backward social priorities, now isn’t it? By that logic, we should ban tetanus shots because they encourage us to step on nails.”
Controversy has erupted across the country over the vaccine, which should be given before females are exposed to the HPV virus to be most effective.
Gardasil, manufactured by Merck, is the first vaccine developed to prevent cervical cancer, precancerous genital lesions and genital warts caused by HPV. It is highly effective against four types of the HPV virus, including two that cause about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, according to the CDC.
It can be given to those who are already sexually active, and it will be effective against those who have not been exposed, officials noted. But it’s best delivered before the onset of sexual activity. In the U.S. the, average age of first intercourse is 16.5, according to the Guttmacher Insititute, but many start earlier.
“We know that sexual initiation, unfortunately, is quite young,” said Thorburn.
According to the CDC committee’s recommendation, three doses of the new vaccine should be given to girls when they’re 11 or 12 years old. The shots can be given to girls as young as 9 with the advice of a doctor or other health care provider.
Making sure the drug is widely available and affordable should be a priority, said Jet Tilley, public policy director for Planned Parenthood of the Inland Northwest.
“We are at a critical juncture for women’s health and safety,” Tilley said in a statement. “It is now up to Congress to appropriate enough funding to ensure that everyone who needs this vaccine has access to it.”
Until funding for the vaccine is approved in Washington, it will be available at a cost of about $300, Thorburn said.
But LeAnna Benn, national director of Teen-Aid, a Spokane agency that advocates abstinence, said the vaccine raises tough questions for parents.
“They’re going to have to ask, ‘Do I expect my daughter to start having sex at 11 and 12?’ ” she said. “Most parents don’t realize that you get cervical cancer from having sex.”
Benn argues that the vaccine will give kids a false sense of protection.
“If they think they’re safe, they’ll engage in more (sex) earlier,” she said.
One point on which all parties agreed was the need for thoughtful conversations about sexual behavior at an early age.
“The good news is, it will cause some discussion,” Benn said.