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HPV and me

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I went to a party earlier this year where I met a health clinician who is also an aspiring baker. We joked about how she could combine her two interests into one career. Several days later, she brought me cheerily iced homemade cookies cut into the shapes of some common bacteria and viruses that cause sexually transmitted diseases—chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes and syphilis. They were delicious.

Six weeks later, I went in for my annual screening, which, like my previous 26 consecutive screenings, I assumed would be normal. No. 27 was not. As it turns out, one cookie was missing. HPV, the human papillomavirus, is rounded with a ridged surface and looks like a dried sycamore seed—but it is too small to be seen with a conventional microscope. Certain subtypes, known as high-risk HPV, can cause several types of cancer, including cervical and oral cancer, the latter, particularly in men. As I later learned from my surgeon, high-risk HPV had been hanging out in my body for probably 20 years, long before I got married. Like a dog circling his bed, HPV finally lay down in its favorite place. I had cervical cancer.

I tell you this not as a confession, nor out of shame; 80 percent of sexually active people will contract some form of HPV, either low-risk or high-risk, in their lives.

I tell you this because of Michele Bachmann's irresponsible politicization of an important vaccine. At a recent presidential candidates' debate, Bachmann bashed Texas Gov. Rick Perry for trying to require parents to opt out of, rather than opt into, a HPV vaccination program for girls. She made a scientifically baseless statement that the vaccination can cause mental retardation. For the record, it doesn't. But it might save your life.

The vaccine, Gardasil, doesn't cover all types of the low- and high-risk virus, but it does pursue the main culprits. Like other vaccines, it can have side effects. Of the 35 million doses of Gardasil administered since 2006, 35 people have died, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it cannot find a causal relationship between the two events. Contrast this with the 23,000 people sickened by food-borne illnesses—mostly from beef, poultry and fish—in 2010 alone. Of those, 22 died as a result of the contamination.

Now consider that 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year; 4,000 of them die of it.

Since all states have some requirement that children be vaccinated for childhood diseases before entering school, it sounds like the furor over the HPV vaccination is less about government intervention and more about sex.

Young people are going to have sex, and probably sooner than their parents would like to acknowledge. Federal statistics show that by age 17, 20 percent of girls have been exposed to HPV—and it can be transmitted skin-to-skin, without actual intercourse.

Fortunately, my cancer was caught very early. It had not traveled beyond its favorite place. I'm missing some organs, but they were nearing their sell-by date anyway. Nonetheless, cancer is expensive and traumatic. Had the vaccine been available in the 1980s, I would have gladly rolled up my sleeve. It would have been worth the gamble.

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