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Why Are So Many Jewish Parents Opting Not To Vaccinate Their Kids for HPV?

Concerns grow about the shot’s efficacy, despite promising results. Maybe we’re more worried about our daughters’ sexuality.

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University of Miami pediatrician Judith L. Schaechter gives an HPV vaccination to a 13-year-old girl in her office at the Miller School of Medicine on September 21, 2011. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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A few weeks ago, we had a celebrate-the-onset-of-summer party for the kids and parents from Josie’s flute class. We like these folks a lot. They are smart, funny, progressive East Village types, with plenty of Jewy representation. Our kids play Bach together. That afternoon, as our spawn ran around with squirt guns and we noshed on orzo salad, the conversation turned to vaccination for HPV, the human papilloma virus. And I discovered I was the only parent definitively planning to get her daughters the vaccine. And I was shocked.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends this vaccine for all 11- and 12-year-old girls. Starting in 2010, the CDC began recommending it for all 11- and 12-year-old boys, too. Why? Because the vaccine protects against two particularly virulent strains of HPV: serotypes 16 and 18, the ones that cause most kinds of cervical cancer. Type 16 also causes half the cases of oropharyngeal cancer (cancer of the mid-throat, palate, tongue, and tonsils). And a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that by 2020, HPV is actually likely to cause more oropharyngeal cancers than cervical cancers in the United States.

I was surprised at my flute friends’ vaccine resistance. They’re not homeschooling uber-hippie types, and they’re not insular ultra-Orthodox Jews—two groups who have been known for opting out of childhood vaccines. My friends’ kids got the little-kid vaccines that protect against measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, hepatitis, whooping cough, tetanus, and more. The only vaccine they oppose is this one. And their reasons dovetail with those of other friends who responded to my Facebook query about whether they were planning to get the HPV vaccine for their kids. (Most of my opting-out friends emailed me privately rather than responding publicly on Facebook. Talking about vaccines on Facebook is like lobbing a cheeseburger into a vegan convention. There will be ugly fallout.)

Here are all the reasons my friends are saying no to this vaccine, presented in one convenient (real) email:

From the research I’ve done, the benefits from the vaccine do not outweigh the potential risks, which could be substantial. To be clear: I am not anti-vaccine. At all. But I think like anything, you have to be a smart vaccine consumer. I am all for vaccines when I think there is real, tangible benefit to be had: polio, MMR, chicken pox, meningitis—all great! But the HPV vaccine seems to me a big pharma marketing exercise. I feel that the protection/reduction of risks from cancer, etc., are small and the potential risks of an untested vaccine on my kids are huge. Just my feeling. But I know lots of others, including doctor friends of mine, who feel the same way.

Vaccine safety and the evil influence of pharmaceutical companies were the two issues that came up again and again. Two friends also said they felt the vaccine was a way of slut-shaming girls (who are still the primary recipients of the vaccine; not many parents know that it’s now recommended for boys as well), trying to make them fear sex. My East Village peeps are proud Planned Parenthood supporters and Rachel-Maddow-watching liberals; they don’t fit the profile of parents who say they’re opposed to sex education and access to contraception because those things send a message that encourages sexual activity.

Further, this crew as a whole felt that HPV infection is no biggie; practically everyone we know has had it, and it usually goes away by itself. (True. Ninety percent of HPV infections do disappear within two years.) They said that as long as you get regular Pap smears, you’ll be fine … and you won’t be exposed to an under-tested new drug that can have terrible side effects, as detailed on scaremongering websites. After the flute party, even I, a vociferous vaccine booster, was waffling about whether I wanted Josie and Maxie to have this vaccine. Our pediatrician’s office starts the 3-shot process when kids are 12. Josie is 11. I’d have to decide fast.

Then, the week after the party, a new federal study came out showing that the presence of HPV serotypes 16 and 18—the scary ones—has dropped by half among teenage girls since 2006. That’s pretty huge … especially since only 35 percent of girls ages 13-17 have had all three doses of the vaccine.

Yet despite the evidence that the vaccine works well, compliance rates are dropping drastically. A national study by Paul M. Darden, a pediatrics professor at the University of Oklahoma, that was published in March in the journal Pediatrics found that in 2008, 44 percent of parents intended to vaccinate; by 2010, that number had fallen to 40 percent. In 2008, 4.5 percent of parents said that safety worries kept them away from the vaccine; in 2010, more than 16 percent said that. That’s a fourfold increase in only two years.

But why? In her New York Times Motherlode column, my friend K.J. Dell’Antonia blamed the messaging that’s getting to parents. Promoting the vaccine as protection against sexually transmitted diseases is freaking people out, she argued, in a piece called “Will Parents Still Turn Down an Anti-Cancer Vaccine?”

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Why Are So Many Jewish Parents Opting Not To Vaccinate Their Kids for HPV?

Concerns grow about the shot’s efficacy, despite promising results. Maybe we’re more worried about our daughters’ sexuality.