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.

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

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Parents as educators
Postponing sex
Self-respect
Talking with kids

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A Prescription for Death

Anna Nicole Smith is found dead in Florida and a country is obsessed. What or who killed her? Who’s her baby’s father? Where will Anna Nicole be buried?

I’ll leave the debate about these issues to others. I want to talk about something said by Police Chief Charlie Tiger in Seminole, Florida. He said Smith’s hotel room contained “no illegal drugs, only prescription drugs.”

The way I read Chief Tiger’s remark, prescription medicine is somehow safer – or more acceptable – than so-called street drugs. And this is just what so many kids think, according to a survey by Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

Consider their findings:

• Nearly 40 percent of teens say they have close friends who’ve abused prescription painkillers.

• Teens say that one reason for the rise in abuse of prescription drugs is that they’re easy to get – specifically, from their own medicine cabinets at home.

• Nearly half of all teens believe that using prescription medications to get high is much safer than using street drugs.

It doesn’t matter whether you get the mood-altering drugs from a dealer or from a medicine cabinet. If you misuse them, they can change how your brain functions. You can get addicted. You can die.

I’m all for pain medication when it’s properly used. Two years ago, I ruptured a disc in my back. I couldn’t get the Vicodine® prescribed by my doctor into my system fast enough. Fortunately, the pain subsided within a day, and I stopped taking the pills. But when I was using Vicodine®, I wondered why anyone would take it for fun. I hated the side effects. (I’ll spare you the details.)

So, when you talk with your kids about drugs, please tell them this:

When a doctor prescribes a drug, he or she has decided that the possible benefits of taking the medicine outweigh the risks. But there’s nothing safe about taking drugs that are prescribed for someone else. And using drugs in ways a doctor didn’t prescribe is dangerous.

If we must continue to talk about Anna Nicole Smith, please use the speculation around her unnecessary death as an opportunity to talk about the physical and emotional dangers of both street and prescription drug abuse.

Resources
Drugs: True Stories
Words Can Work: When Talking About Drugs

Related Issues and Answers columns
Cocaine and addiction
Cocaine’s effect on the body
Crystal meth
Marijuana
Prescription drugs

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