A study that is soon to be published in the journal Pediatrics looks at the reasons why many young girls haven’t received the HPV vaccine. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to primarily be their providers’ fault. The most common reason that parents gave for not vaccinating their daughters was that their doctors never suggested it. Another common reason was doctors incorrectly suggesting that vaccination should wait until after their daughters were sexually active, which is a bad idea both practically and biologically. Furthermore, such a recommendation means that doctors are looking at girls and trying to guess whether they’re sexually active before deciding whether or not to recommend the vaccine. Given the fact that most of them are basing those guesses on factors that may have little or nothing to do with sexual risk, it’s not only bad medicine, it has the potential for substantial bias.
In contrast, doctors who were good at suggesting that girls should be vaccinated for HPV took the focus away from sex. The recommended the vaccine as a standard part of the 11 year old vaccination routine. They talked about it as a way to reduce cancer. They made it about medicine and health and, by and large, parents approached that way agreed to the vaccine. Although there were some parental concerns about safety, the number of parents who declined the vaccine for that reason were trivial compared to the ones who were never asked about it in the first place.
Science says that girls should get the vaccine before they’re sexually active. It says the vaccine is safe and has not shown any benefit to waiting. Therefore, doctors have to do a better job of getting past their own biases and misconceptions about sex and work harder to provide patients with evidence-based care. Vaccination shouldn’t be about adolescent sexuality. It should be about long term reproductive health.