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What’s Behind the Low HPV Vaccination Rates?

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By , 18, Staff Writer Originally Published: January 7, 2015 Revised: January 7, 2015

The summer before I started eighth grade, I was nervous about my final year of junior high. I was even more terrified about starting high school the next fall. To make things worse, my mom told me that I had to get a physical and some immunizations before I started the school year.

Measles, Mumps, Rubella…and HPV?

The week before school started, I sat down on the doctor’s exam table, ready to be poked and prodded. My doctor asked, “Have you gotten your period?”

“Yes,” I responded.

“Congrats! How many months has it been?”

As I blushed at the questions, she went on to give me the standard physical and all of the shots that I was required to get.

She then asked my mother if I wanted the HPV vaccine, which had recently become available for preteens and adults in a series of three shots. My mother immediately refused. I thought, Why is she saying yes to all of these other shots and no to this one?

My mother then added, “We’re Christian. We practice abstinence until marriage. She doesn’t need it.”

And that was the end of the conversation. I didn’t understand what abstinence had to do with getting a shot at the doctor’s office, and for a few years I didn’t think anything of it.

Vaccines are a necessary part of staying healthy. If we treated the HPV vaccine like every other immunization, I think the rates of vaccination would go up.

Learning More About HPV

I later found out that HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a virus that affects both guys and girls. Although there are more than 100 strains of HPV, some are pretty harmless. The HPV vaccine protects against four specific strains. Two strains that cause most cervical cancer cases as well as anal and prostate cancers, and the two strains that cause most cases of genital warts. The strains of HPV that can cause cancers are transmitted through bodily fluids, like semen or vaginal fluids. The strains that can cause genital warts are transmitted through genital skin-to-skin contact.

Despite the fact that this vaccine protects against all of this, few teens are getting the HPV vaccine. Only 38 percent of girls and a shocking 14 percent of boys have finished the series of shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why Not Get Vaccinated?

Some people believe getting the vaccine will make you more likely to have a lot of unprotected sex. That is a big reason why my mother didn’t let me get the vaccine. But the vaccine doesn’t make you any more or less likely to have sex than you were before getting it. It’s like saying that if you get the tetanus vaccine, you’re more likely to go and step on rusty nails on purpose.

I spoke about the HPV vaccine with someone who plans to have one sexual partner. Mikenzee Hansen, 19, of Chicago, explains, “Although I plan to only have one sexual partner, I chose to get the HPV vaccine because it has been proven to help prevent cervical cancer.”

Some parents are afraid of the vaccine because they think it’s dangerous.

“I haven’t had any HPV vaccinations. My mom doesn’t want me to get them because…she’s concerned that I’ll be part of the tiny percentage of people who die from the vaccine,” says Fiona McSweeney, 16, Brooklyn, NY.

No one has died from getting the HPV vaccine. But common side effects include itching, redness at the injection site and bruising.

Let’s Raise HPV Vaccination Rates

Vaccines are a necessary part of staying healthy. If we treated the HPV vaccine like every other immunization, I think the rates of vaccination would go up. And hopefully the rates of HPV infection and genital cancers would go down.

“I had to finish my cycle of HPV shots for two reasons,” says C’shae Bess-Perez, 18, of Jersey City, NJ. “The first is my doctor insisted every time I went, and the second is because in order for me to go to college I had to have certain shots.”

If my school required the HPV vaccination, maybe my mother wouldn’t have objected so quickly. And if more schools made getting the HPV vaccine necessary to enter high school, like we do for polio and other diseases, maybe we could lower rates of HPV infection the same way we lowered the infection rate for polio. Whether it is because of a doctor, your school or your insisting on it, getting the HPV vaccine is definitely a good idea.

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