By Samantha Richards, 15, Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies
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Samantha says teens should be more aware of HPV and ways they can protect themselves.

I was sitting in my living room watching TV late last year when a commercial came on. A bunch of middle-aged, perfect-looking, healthy women started babbling about a disease that I had never heard of—Human papillomavirus.

I was mostly ignoring the commercial, when I heard that this virus could cause cancer. I was captivated because cancer runs in my family. The commercial ended with “tell someone you love.” I told my mom about the commercial and that I was worried. She explained to me that Human papillomavirus (HPV) could lead to cervical cancer. But she also told me I had already received my first in a series of shots to protect me from the virus.

I couldn’t believe no one had told me about HPV and the horrible things it could do. Also, I was irritated that I hadn’t paid more attention to what was happening at my last check-up and that I didn’t know what was being injected into my body. However, I was more relieved that my mom had taken precautions and already talked to my doctor about me and my sisters getting this vaccine.

I didn’t know HPV is so common

Following the conversation with my mom I researched HPV and what it could do. I learned that Human papillomavirus is transmitted sexually and in a small number of cases can cause cervical cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 20 million Americans are infected with HPV. Although the number is staggering, in most women the infection goes away without treatment and doesn’t cause cancer. This disease was much more common than I had thought.

HPV can be spread through all forms of sex, including oral sex. Most HPV infections exhibit no signs or symptoms, so an infected person might not know that they are infected, according to the CDC. Yet they can still spread the virus to someone they have sexual contact with. In some cases people contract genital warts, or pre-cancerous cells begin to grow in the cervix. The virus is most contagious when warts are present. I found it astonishing that so many people were unknowingly infected with HPV. They could be spreading HPV to anyone. As I learned more, it made me appreciate my mom’s attention to the disease.

When I went to my pediatrician’s office for the third shot (the vaccine requires three shots spaced out at two-month intervals) I was still petrified of needles. But after the shot, even though I felt light-headed enough to pass out, I felt good that I was protected against cervical cancer (and that I didn’t have to go through another shot).

It is estimated that, by the age of 50, at least 80 percent of women will have acquired sexually transmitted HPV at some point in their lives, according to the CDC. The vaccine, called Gardasil, protects against four types of HPV, including two that cause about 70 percent of occurrences of cervical cancer. Because this disease is so infectious, state legislatures in Massachusetts, Virginia and New Mexico among others are considering laws that would require girls to get vaccinated against HPV before enrolling in school. Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued an executive order requiring that girls entering sixth grade get vaccinated. I couldn’t believe Texas, a conservative state, had adopted this law, while California, a liberal state, has not. Unfortunately, the Texas state Legislature overruled Perry and stopped the requirement. I believe that a bill like this, if passed in California, would be a great idea because the virus spreads so easily.

Some think the vaccine encourages teens to have sex

From reading newspaper articles and Web sites, I learned that some parents and conservative groups have objected to a vaccine requirement. Linda Klepacki, an analyst for sexual health at Focus on the Family, a Christian organization, said that her group opposes making the vaccine mandatory.

“There is a difference between the chicken pox and HPV,” Klepacki explained in an interview published in Health Care News. “The four types of HPV covered by the vaccine are sexually transmitted. You can get chicken pox by sitting in the classroom. You cannot contract or transmit HPV in the classroom unless you are engaging in sexual activity. Therefore, there is no reason to mandate this.”

Also, some overprotective parents contend that girls will have more sex because this vaccination protects them from cervical cancer; this is completely untrue. Some teenage girls will have sex regardless of whether they get vaccinated. The idea that teens would become more sexually active just because they got a shot is ridiculous! Because HPV is less known, most teens would be more concerned with becoming pregnant or getting another sexually transmitted disease.

From the research I have done, I’ve learned that an issue that California legislators and parents worry about is the cost. The three shots cost $360, which is expensive considering that thousands of people in Los Angeles don’t have health insurance. However, if the vaccine becomes mandatory, programs like Vaccines for Children (VFC) would cover the cost for eligible children under 18.

I feel that while yes, this vaccine is very expensive, it beats the medical costs for treating cervical cancer. For years people have wished for something that could prevent cancer and now that we have a vaccine that helps prevent at least one form, people shouldn’t let the cost stop them from protecting their health.

Furthermore, some parents feel requiring a vaccine infringes on their parental rights and the government should not be telling them how to raise their children. I don’t see it that way. I see this as the government trying to protect public health. My question to skeptical teens is, “Well, do you want to get HPV?” The obvious response to this question is, “no.”

After researching the disease, the last line of the commercial, “tell someone you love,” stuck with me. I felt it was imperative that I follow those words and do something. Almost automatically, I felt responsible for informing everyone I knew. I told my friends and cousins because I love them and I don’t want them to become a statistic.

Should the HPV vaccine be required?

“I think it should be required because it’s a way you can prevent yourself from having the disease. It’d be better to have something you can count on than not having anything.”
Grace Contreras, 15, East Valley HS (North Hollywood)
“Yes, because it’s for protection just in case.”
Kea Lewis, 14, East Valley HS
“I think it’s wrong. I don’t think somebody should be forced to take the vaccine. You should have the option.”
Karina Lopez, 15, East Valley HS
“I think that it should be optional. It should be up to the girl.”
Elizabeth Henry, 14, East Valley HS
“Yes, I think it should be required because it helps you as a girl and it reduces the danger of you getting cervical cancer.”
Kimberly Mazariegos, 15, East Valley HS
“I definitely do not think that the government should require girls to get the vaccine. I think that getting the shot is a personal choice that the girl and her family need to make, not the government. Instead making it a law, I think that all girls should be well informed of the high chance of getting HPV and of the existence of the vaccine.”
Stephanie Atienza, 16, Notre Dame Academy
“No, I’m personally afraid of shots and since the drug is so new there are probably harmful side effects that could arise later.”
Alana Folsom, 16, Marshall HS
  “I don’t think the government should require it, because some girls might take it as the government permitting them to have sex.”
Amy Mandel, 17, Taft HS

Photos and quotes gathered by Noelle Cornelio, 16, Notre Dame Academy; Camilla Rambaldi, 17, Taft HS; and editors Mike Fricano and Laura Lee.