The medical community and health officials promote vaccines as the greatest achievement in modern medicine, yet a growing fear still exists over vaccine side effects. A certain amount of skepticism is normal, but once relevant data is presented, why does the skepticism persist?
Resistance to the HPV vaccine has some of its origins in a mistrust of the relationship between the medical community and the pharmaceutical industry.
Critics assume someone must be gaining financially. Also, news reports and information on the Internet are designed to pique interest not clarify cause and effect vs. correlation.
Denial is a human defense that is less available to members of the medical and public health communities. Someone who has never seen polio sees no need for the vaccine. A Ventura California Public Health nurse recalled when she was a child, there was a boy in her neighborhood who was paralyzed by polio. She reminds resistant parents of diseases that exist, even though most people would rather not think of them.
HPV related cancers fall into that unseen group. The same nurse reports that acceptance of the vaccine was slow at first, because initially, “There was a lot of misinformation out there.” It can be difficult for the parent of a 13 year-old girl to imagine the day when the child will be sexually active. Recently, a mother refused the vaccine. “If she’s a virgin until she gets married, my husband doesn’t think she’ll need it.” the nurse pointed out that perhaps the girl’s husband wouldn’t be. The child got the vaccine.
A Pediatric Nurse Practitioner in Southern California strongly recommends the vaccine. “I’m all about prevention and alleviating suffering.” She approaches the parents with direct, easy-to-understand language. “After your child’s exposed, the horse is out of the barn. You won’t know until it’s too late.”
“It prevents cancer,” she tells them. She reminds the parents that the onset of cervical cancer affects the child bearing years. She mentions penile cancer, anal and even references Michael Douglas’ recent oral cancer.
Neither nurse reported any serious side effects beyond dizziness and local muscle soreness. The Nurse Practitioner says that 30% of her teenagers want the vaccine. "The resistance of the others has more to do with injection phobia than fear of adverse effects."
The mother of two teenage boys living in South Carolina told me that her decision to vaccinate was directly related to her trust in her pediatrician. She added that her 15 and 17 year-olds knew more about the vaccine than she did.
The mother of an 8 year-old girl who lives outside of Sau Paulo, Brazil, credited her government and their public service campaign for her knowledge of the importance of the vaccine. She says that in Brazil the vaccine will soon be covered, but at this time for girls only.
Another mother of an 11 year-old girl living in Los Angeles explained her acceptance of the vaccine this way. “You can read things online, but the parent need someone they trust.” In her case her “older, conservative pediatrician” explained, “it’s a vaccine to prevent cancer. That’s a no brainer.”
Public Health campaigns affect acceptance, but those who provide direct care should not underestimate their influence. Awareness is spreading, but it is the one-on-one interaction that can be a countervailing force against scare tactics and cynicism.
Prevention requires information, affordability, but above all trust.
Mary-Jo Murphy, MS, RN, CDE