The HPV vaccine

If there was a vaccine that could prevent cancer and it was proven to be safe and effective, would you get it? Would you want your children to get it? That vaccine exists.

It’s called the HPV vaccine, which stands for human papilloma virus. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that causes genital warts, the primary cause of cervical cancer. Since its development, more than 35 million doses have been given with an excellent safety record.

But recently, the mindless remarks by a potential presidential candidate may have frightened some parents away from this vaccine and put some girls at risk.

The day after a heated debate among the Republican presidential candidates, Michele Bachmann went on NBC’s Today Show and stated that a woman told her that her daughter received the vaccine and “suffered from mental retardation thereafter.”

The response from the medical community was swift and clear.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement saying there is “absolutely no scientific validity” to her comments. A small group of pediatricians was so disturbed that they made a challenge to the congresswoman: If she could produce a single person who had become “mentally retarded” after receiving the HPV vaccine, they would donate $100,000 to the charity of her choice. On the other hand, if it was shown that the person was not injured by the vaccine, Bachmann would agree to donate $100,000 to a charity chosen by the pediatricians.

The congresswoman did not accept the challenge.

When it comes to the health of our children, it is critical that parents consider the source of the information they are receiving. In these days of constant Internet chatter and a 24-hour news cycle on TV, it can be very difficult to know who to believe. Anyone can say anything and sound credible. That’s why it’s important to have a trusted pediatrician who can advise you about your child’s individual needs.

Here are the facts: Every year in the U.S. about 6 million people, including teens, are infected with HPV and some will eventually develop cervical cancer. Most cervical cancer is caused by HPV, and cervical cancer kills 4,000 women every year.

The vaccine prevents HPV and dramatically reduces the risk of cervical cancer. It is recommended for girls around age 11 or 12 because tests have determined that the body produces the best immune response around that age, but it can be given up to age 29. Some parents are uncomfortable giving a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease to girls who are not yet sexually active, but it’s important to protect girls well before the onset of sexual activity.

There’s no need to give a child a lengthy explanation about the vaccine and sexually transmitted diseases. Parents can simply tell their daughter the vaccine will help keep her healthy. That’s the truth.

Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. Email her at

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