Serving Southern Jefferson County in the Great State of Montana

Don't You Wish You Would Have Known?

What if I told you there is a way to help prevent certain cancers? Would you be interested? I recall a young woman in her early twenties who once told me she wished she had known. I still remember her name. For me, as a new nurse, her experience and mine intertwined and would leave a profound effect on me. She was one of three out of four adults who would contract human papillomavirus (HPV), and that would lead to countless procedures and treatments for cervical cancer and, ultimately, an early hysterectomy. I could only listen and provide comfort for her shock and devastation that her plans of having children were taken from her. Her fight for her life did not cross her mind at that time.

She was one of the 46,000 cases of HPV-derived cancers in both males and females each year in the United States. What if her parents had known that they could have helped prevent her battle when she was still a child with an HPV vaccine such as Gardasil 9? This vaccine can prevent 90% of HPV-derived cancers from ever occurring. Would they have jumped at this opportunity?

In public health, our efforts are aimed at prevention. Instead of providing comfort while a patient must undergo treatments, I can provide education to help parents make difficult decisions for their children's futures. Vaccinations are a great way to provide prevention targeting certain pathogens. The discovery of vaccinations has led to a world with less disease-derived disability and has lowered childhood mortality. Childhood vaccines are estimated to prevent over four million deaths worldwide each year.

So why is it so difficult to decide to vaccinate our children? There is no doubt that whatever a parent's decision is, it is made out of love. However, it is also often plagued with fear. With so much conflicting information online, it can be difficult to feel certain vaccines are safe. Who do we trust? It seems that there are valid arguments on both sides. I will never say that anything is 100% safe. This is where risk versus benefit scenarios come into play. How can you absolutely know that you or your child will not suffer an extremely rare adverse effect from a vaccine? You don't. How can you know if your child will not suffer a much more common consequence from a virus the vaccine protects you from? You don't.

Maybe you can look to the words of a bereaved parent. Benjamin Franklin said, "In 1736, I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen." A prominent figure, Franklin was uncertain of inoculation then, so he refrained from choosing this option for his son. His decision did not spare his son from the fatal consequences of the virus itself.

Perhaps you would rather hear the pleas of our community members. One of them has told us here at the health department to share her story, a story much like that of the young woman I mentioned earlier. If only she had known about this vaccine, if only it had been available to her, it could have changed her future.

HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact and cannot be treated, but the vaccine can prevent a person from contracting the virus. Although the virus can be cleared by the body, the infection will often linger and sometimes cause damage that leads to cancer in the future. A variety of cancers are caused by HPV, mostly attacking the reproductive organs of males and females.

Cancer prevention starts in childhood. Gardasil 9 is routinely recommended for adolescent males and females, most often beginning at age 11, before exposure is likely to occur, allowing time for vigorous antibodies to be made. We often give this vaccination with two other crucial immunizations, TDAP, and meningococcal vaccines. The HPV vaccine is a two-dose series for ages 9-15 and a three-dose series for anyone over the age of 15. With more than 135 million doses distributed in the United States, the HPV vaccine has a reassuring safety record backed by over fifteen years of monitoring and research.

If you are still unsure if any vaccine is right for you or your children, all of us at the Jefferson County Health Department would love to have a conversation with you. Bring us your concerns, as well as the possible benefits you see, and let's have an open and honest discussion.

JCHD is happy to offer Gardasil 9 at an affordable cost. We also partner with The Caring Foundation of Montana and Care Van to provide no-cost immunizations. Our next Care Van clinic will be May 7th in Whitehall, May 8th in Boulder, and May 10th in Clancy. Call 406-225-4007 for more info or to get scheduled today!

 

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