Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Shot of Honesty

Parents of young girls are suddenly faced with a big decision: Should I vaccinate my young daughter against strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) to protect her from cervical cancer?

About 27 percent of females 14 to 59 years old are infected with HPV. The vaccine doesn’t protect against all strains of the virus. Nearly 4,000 women die every year from cervical cancer. The two HPV strains that the vaccine blocks are responsible for about 70 percent of those deaths.

When I heard that Merck, the pharmaceutical company, had produced the new vaccine, I knew that many parents would struggle over what to do. Here’s my advice: When you do talk with your daughter about the vaccine, tell the truth.

Case in point: A nine-year-old girl interviewed by CNN said her mom told her the vaccine protected against cancer you get from kissing. Come on. Eventually, the girl will learn the facts and wonder why her mom lied. Then she’ll question whether she can go to her mom with her questions and worries, and with good reason: Will her mother tell her the truth?

Dr. Barry Zuckerman, Chairman of the Pediatric Department at Boston Medical Center, says that parents’ honesty when speaking about sexual health sets the stage for ongoing open communication. “Children know when you’re not telling the truth,” he says. “Lying impairs your ability to communicate with them.”

In the past week, I’ve read about parents handling this health issue a variety of ways. Some say they’ll have their daughters vaccinated, but not tell them why. Others say they’re using the vaccine as an opportunity to explain that just as they can get vaccinated against measles, they can be vaccinated against a cancer-causing virus passed through sexual contact. Sure, it’s easier for parents who started talking honestly about sexual health earlier, beginning in their kids’ infancy, using accurate terms for body parts. But the vaccine debate offers parents who have avoided talking about sex a chance to begin these important discussions.

If not now, when? Do you think it will get easier as she gets older? If you wait until your daughter is a teen, chances are you’ll get the eye roll: “I knooowww about that stuff,” she’ll likely say. And she will know; she probably already does. Whether you decide to vaccinate her or not, this is a discussion many nine- and ten-year-old girls are having with their friends. A lot of them are getting the shots, and they know why, because their parents have told them the truth.

So talk with other parents, read the ample material available to help you talk with your kids about sex, take a deep breath, and begin.

But for God’s sake, please don’t lie about sexual health.

Raising Healthy Kids: Families Talk About Sexual Health
Words Can Work: When Talking With Kids About Sexual Health

Related Issues and Answers columns
Parents as educators
Postponing sex
Talking with kids

Related columns for young people


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