Teen Talk: Gardasil, a Shot of Prevention

pink vaccine cartoonOne of my least-favorite medical memories must have happened when I was 5 years old, give or take. All I remember is that I was very small, surrounded on all sides by my mom, my pediatrician, and a nurse, and shrinking into a corner as the nurse came at me with a needle. I was squirming and protesting and cringing, but she grabbed my arm and pierced it with a syringe, quick as lightning. Before I could howl in protest, it was over.

Arm yourself against genital warts with Gardasil!

But here’s the thing: It hurt. A lot. And for days afterward, I went about my business feeling as if I had been punched in the arm. When I complained to my mom about how sore I was, she said that my muscles were completely tensed up, and shots hurt more when your muscles are tense. That fact only compounded my annoyance — why had that mean old nurse pricked me at the height of my freakout? If someone had just explained it to me, maybe I could have calmed down enough to relax my muscles and minimize the pain.

That incident made a mark on me, and once I hit adulthood I saw no reason to continue inviting the painful sting of immunization if I didn’t have to. It wasn’t until vaccine-preventable diseases like pertussis and measles started making a comeback that I had to admit to myself that avoiding immunization wasn’t anything to be proud of, and I started getting all my booster shots and yearly influenza vaccinations.

Now that it’s August, I’d like to observe National Immunization Awareness Month by celebrating one of my favorite vaccines, Gardasil, which protects against a super-common virus called human papillomavirus, or HPV for short. There are many strains of HPV, some of which cause genital warts, some of which cause cancer. Today’s generation of tweens and teens is so lucky to have access to a vaccine that not only has the potential to practically eliminate risk for genital warts, but also protects against HPV strains that cause several types of cancer.

If the prospect of not having to worry about genital warts is intriguing to you, read about what happened Down Under. Australia’s Gardasil vaccination rates are sky high — much higher than ours here in the United States. The results? Genital wart rates among females younger than 21 years of age plummeted by 93 percent! Some researchers are even predicting the elimination of genital warts from the entire country!

So, let’s get back to my fear of painful injections. My most recent shot was just last month, and, remembering my mom’s admonishment not to tense up my muscles, I calmed myself with deep breaths to relax myself. I closed my eyes and let my arms go totally limp. I offered up my left arm for the shot, since I am right-handed — just in case I had to spend the next few days feeling like I’ve been punched in the arm. I always warn the nurse that I’m afraid of needles, and so far they’ve been understanding, kind, and quick.

And you know what? Last time I was there, I opened my eyes and said to the nurse, “They’re never as bad as I think they’re going to be!” Even if they were, surely most people who find warts on their genitals would love to hop in a time machine and feel the twinge of a few shots of Gardasil to prevent the warts from ever having popped up in the first place. And that’s what I tell myself each time I visit a clinic for a shot — it’s not my favorite thing ever, but it sure beats the alternative!

Gardasil is delivered in three doses, which is another off-putting fact for my fellow needlephobes. There are even rumors that the third shot in the series hurts the most. I can put that fear to rest right now, though — all three shots are exactly the same. The doses are identical and the needles are the same size. However, when we expect something to be painful, we might actually experience the shot as being more painful. I’ve also found that some nurses are more skilled than others — a few have shocked me with the most gentle of jabs that I barely even felt!

Anyone can be vaccinated with Gardasil, but it’s recommended for boys and girls at around the age of 11, not just because it works best when recipients get it before becoming sexually active, but also because the immune response is stronger in younger people. One study found that girls 9 to 13 years of age gain as much protection from two shots of Gardasil as young women 16 to 26 years of age who received three shots. If you’re a 13-year-old dreading your third and final shot, that might be welcome news, but also consider that some researchers think that the third shot will make your immunity last much longer.

So, what are the pros and cons of Gardasil? Let’s take a look:

  • your risk of genital warts is practically eliminated
  • your risk of developing certain cancers when you’re older takes a huge nosedive
  • if you’re female, your risk of an abnormal Pap test decreases
  • if you’re male, getting vaccinated with Gardasil before becoming sexually active can put your partners at ease, because there is no FDA-approved HPV test for males
  • if your future partner hasn’t been vaccinated, you can protect him or her from HPV infection
  • by getting vaccinated, you’re doing your part to help humanity eradicate these strains of HPV for good!
  • shots can hurt!
  • you need to see a health care provider three times over a period of six months to get all three doses

Personally, I think the pros outweigh the cons — by a lot! You can receive Gardasil from your pediatrician or doctor, at health clinics, or at any Planned Parenthood health center. A shot in the arm is a shot of prevention!

Check out other installments of our Teen Talk series here!