Young Women Consider the HPV Vaccine A new vaccine for human papillomavirus promises to help prevent cervical cancer. Young women and their parents are trying to figure out if the HPV vaccine is right for them.
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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand.

Several states are considering requiring teenage girls to get a new vaccine that prevents HPV. HPV is the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer. Teenage girls, along with their parents, are now trying to sort through some confusing information to decide whether to get the vaccine.

Seventeen-year-old Alana Germany from Youth Radio is one of them.

Ms. ALANA GERMANY (Correspondent, Youth Radio): The past few weeks, every time I take a seat to relax and watch a little TV, I see that new Gardasil commercial, One Less.

Unidentified Woman #1: I want to be one less woman who will battle cervical cancer.

Unidentified Woman #2: Because now, there's Gardasil, the only vaccine that may help protect you from the four types of human papillomavirus that may cause 70 percent of cervical cancer.

Ms. GERMANY: I learned about cervical cancer in health class, but it never seemed like that big of a deal. Now, I see these commercials, and the statistics about how many people would be affected by HPV, and how it can lead to cervical cancer. And well, it's all shocking. I'm wondering, should I get the vaccine?

When I want to find anything, my first instinct is to go to the Net. You can find anything on Google, right?

Going to go to Planned Parenthood, see what I can find. It's best for the vaccine to be administered before the onset of sexual activity, but young women who are sexually active should still be vaccinated. Okay.

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Ms. GERMANY: So, here I am on Teenwire, which is, I guess, the sister site to Planned Parenthood. It says that the vaccine should be given to girls and boys before sexual activities with partners begin.

Okay. So, that's confusing. And that's from the source a lot of my friends turn to with questions about sex and sexually transmitted diseases. Even though I might check the Internet, a lot of girls, like 18-year-old Sarah Beth McKay in Atlanta, Georgia, are going to their parents. Sarah's mom has breast cancer.

Ms. SARAH BETH MCKAY (Teenager from Atlanta, Georgia): Do you think that I should get the vaccine?

Ms. MCKAY (Mother of Beth): If it can prevent you from getting any cancer, certainly worth thinking about. Because cancer is a road nobody wants to travel. My question back to you is, do you think, when you're talking to your buddies at school, do you think that getting these vaccination offers you some freedom to have sex, where as you would perhaps be a little more reluctant thinking about sexually transmitted disease?

GERMANY: Here's a controversy. A lot of parents are worried that at ministering the vaccine promotes sexual promiscuity since HPV, the virus that can cause cancer, is a sexually transmitted disease.

Ms. MCKAY: It's tough to think that my daughter be interested in or be preparing for frequent sexual contact or frequent sexual partners.

Ms. SARAH BETH MCKAY: Well, I'm going to be married someday. And what happens if my husband is carrying the HPV virus?

Ms. MCKAY: I don't think it's a bad idea. I think it's a good idea. But I think you don't look at the - at getting the vaccination as a freedom to do whatever you want.

GERMANY: It's up for debate whether or not getting the vaccine affects girls' decision to have sex. Gina Mootrey is a medical officer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She says the CDC is recommending that girls get the vaccine as soon as possible starting as young as nine.

Ms. GINA MOOTREY (Medical Officer, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): The effect of this vaccine will have both individual and population effects. The current information we have is that it's been nearly a 100 percent effective in preventing precursors to cancer and in the development of cervical cancer.

Ms. CARRIE ANDREWS (Teenager): I got the HPV vaccine three weeks ago.

GERMANY: That's 18-year-old Carrie Andrews(ph).

Ms. ANDREWS: Well, I'll tell you how the shot was. When they put it in your arm, it burns. It's really unlike any other shot I've ever received. It burns as it go through - and you feel it that through your blood veins. It's kind of a burning sensation. But then again, you kind of weigh it with the side effects of cancer, and you're, like, well, I think it's bearable.

GERMANY: Carrie is more afraid of cancer than the HPV vaccine, which is why she got vaccinated right away. Eighteen-year-old Taylor Flanagan in Austin, Texas is more skeptical.

Ms. TAYLOR FLANAGAN (Teenager, Austin, Texas): I've always been raised in a household that talked very openly about problems that can arise from very well accepted medical practices.

GERMANY: Taylor is worried about side effects that might show up later. I worry about the same things, especially if a state like Texas, and my state California, consider mandating the vaccine.

Personally, this isn't a decision I want to make right away. I'm 17 and the vaccine is recommended for girls up to age 26. And since I'm not officially active right now, I'm not at risk for HPV.

Plus, the vaccine is still in the early stages of it actually being used by the public. Who knows what negative side effects you might see 10 or 20 years from now?

Also I'm lot more comfortable getting the vaccine after I have more information about its effectiveness over time.

For NPR News, I'm Alana Germany.

BRAND: And that story was produced by Youth Radio.

HPV is more common that you might think and even if you already have the virus, doctors still recommend that you get the vaccine. Almost all of us, 80 percent of adults, have been exposed to HPV at some point in our life.

CHADWICK: And that does mean men and women. There are hundreds of different strains of the HPV virus; about 20 of them, though, are deemed high risk, meaning they could cause cervical cancer if left untreated. Experts recommend the vaccine to help prevent those strains that you don't have.

BRAND: It's a little complicated. But the HPV vaccine helps to prevent four different types of cancer-causing strains of HPV. So, even if you already have one type of HPV, the vaccine would fight against the three other strains.

The most common way to contract HPV is through sex. Men carry the virus, but show no symptoms. Beth Huff, a nurse practitioner at Vanderbilt University says, it's a personal decision whether to tell your partner that you have HPV.

Ms. BETH HUFF (Nurse Practitioner, Vanderbilt University): It's not an infection in the sense that we think of other infections like chlamydia or gonorrhea. So some people feel that if a woman does not want to disclose that information, then it's not necessary that she do that. Of course, we often encourage open and honest communication between partners so that they understand the risk that each of them are exposing each other to.

CHADWICK: There is no real treatment for the virus, not yet anyway, keeping a healthy immune system is the best way to fight it.

Ms. HUFF: The virus itself, we don't actually treat. The immune system will respond in each individual person and hopefully clear that virus over a period of time and usually for most people that's around two years.

BRAND: And the best way to pump up your immune system? It's pretty simple - plenty of sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise.

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BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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