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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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Cerbone is a Russian Jew who understands the skeptical-of-authority worldview. “I would say to parents, ‘I really understand your suspicions! I am a home-birther!’ But the science on this is really good. Are you waiting to find out in 10 years that the science is really good, and by then your kid will have pre-cancer? Are you secretly afraid of your little daughter having sex? Look, a lot of parenting decisions and health-care decisions are not based in science. They’re emotional: One part doing what our moms did and one part doing exactly the opposite of what our moms did; one part who we’re hanging around with and one part what our deepest fears are.”

And if our deepest fears really are of seeing our daughters as sexual creatures at an earlier age than we’d like (or, uh, at all), rest assured that studies repeatedly show that getting the vaccine isn’t associated with promiscuity. “One study looked at girls who got the vaccine and at later markers of sexual activity: birth control, pregnancy, and STD testing,” Darden told me. “There was no relation. Another study found that girls who’d had the vaccine had no earlier initiation of sexual activity and the same number of partners as girls who didn’t have the vaccine … but girls who’d had the vaccine were more likely to use condoms.” Come on, fellow groovy parents! Don’t we want to raise girls who are self-protective and confident enough to make boys put a sleeve on it?

I’d be curious to know what happens with the new(ish) recommendation that boys get the vaccine, too. (Interestingly, for boys the pitch is that the vaccine will prevent penile warts. Which sound really gross. But if I had a son, I’d rather tell him that women’s sexual health is a man’s issue, too, and part of being a mensch is protecting his partner’s health. Even if he’s asymptomatic, does he want to spread a virus to the person he’s shtupping?)

But I wonder, as time passes and more pediatricians get the message that the vaccine is for boys, too, whether boys will be more likely to get the vaccine because adults more comfortable with the notion of boys having sex. Or will the new guidelines mean increased compliance for boys and girls, because it won’t seem as if we’re obsessing solely about girls’ sexual behavior? “We are trying to do a study to find out whether recommending the vaccine for both boys and girls will mean increased uptake for girls,” Darden told me. “I’m hopeful, but I don’t know the answer.”

One final point: If your kid is older than 11 and you’ve opted out of the vaccine, or if you’re in your early 20s and haven’t gotten it, it’s not too late. Research shows that the vaccine still works—though perhaps not quite as well—for women up to age 26 and guys up to age 21. And it’s quite possible your pediatrician never sold you or your parents on it. “We pediatricians are uncomfortable talking about sex,” sighed Darden. “That makes us uncomfortable talking about the vaccine, and parents hear or sense our discomfort, so we’re not as effective as we could be [when it comes to promoting the vaccine]. We pediatricians like babies! We just don’t want to talk about how we get them!” Darden’s two daughters, now 25 and 27, were vaccinated as soon as the vaccine was available, and Cerbone plans to vaccinate her three kids as well. (Her oldest is needle-phobic, so she’s going to wait an extra year.)

So, my crunchy-granola friends: Look for actual, credible sources about vaccine safety, as opposed to anecdotal ones and ones that don’t distinguish between correlation and causation. Consider the reliability of the evidence indicating that this vaccine is more cynical and money-grubby than other vaccines. Think about the long-term health of your kid. And my frum friends: Know that even if your daughter has just one sexual partner in her life, she’s still at risk from HPV.

Doing this story strengthened my resolve to get the vaccine for my kids. When I talked about my concerns with Josie, her response was instantaneous: “I hate shots! They hurt! But why would I not want a shot that keeps me from having cancer a long time from now if now is the best time to get the shot?” Out of the mouths of babes. So, as I’ve said before: Do the Jewish thing and have your kid vaccinated.

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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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