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Vaccinate my love


I have a sexually transmitted infection.

It was so long ago that I contracted the damn thing, it was called a sexually transmitted disease.

Thing is, it never felt like one. A disease, that is. Because no one ever told me about HPV. The sex-ed I received was shockingly and sadly out of touch with the sexual lives my friends and I were living in junior high:hand jobs, blow jobs, anal sex, two babies born in my small circle of friends alone and who knows how many abortions.

And still no one told us about HPV. I'd never even heard of human papillomavirus until I tested positive for one of its strains. A fat lot of good learning how to spell vas deferens in "health" class did me; I was infected.

But maybe you, or your kids, don't have to be. In Nova Scotia, girls in grade seven will, in the next few weeks, be offered the first course of a vaccine which protects against HPV. The program, run through schools, is free.

The doctor who called to let me know about my STD didn't even bother telling me what it was, how I'd got it, or, crucially, that I could pass it on to anyone else with whom I had skin-to-skin genital contact. I hung up before it even occurred to me to ask those questions. I was 18, for god's sake.

La la la. Sexually transmitted disease? I cannn't heeeeear yoooooou....

I wonder how many people I gave it to after that. Or before that.

Without protection, according to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, HPV will be contracted by up to 75 percent of Canadians. The four most common strains cause 70 percent of cervical cancer and 90 percent of genital warts. And the vaccine, whose brand name is Gardasil, provides almost full immunity against the strains. Nova Scotia, as it happens, has one of the highest cervical cancer rates in Canada.

Some parents, though, will choose not to give consent for their daughters to receive the shots.

New-vaccine safety questions are valid, of course. And I think Tanya Johnson, an Etobicoke home-schooling mother of a grade eight girl, was right when she told The Globe and Mail last week, "We can't just trust the medical community to know what's best for our children." But Johnson was wrong when she wondered if the vaccine "sends the message that it's okay to be sexually active."

Gardasil won't give kids licence to hop into the back of the family minivan for an afternoon of delight, any more than having an STD made me stop screwing, screwing around and, undoubtedly, passing on HPV. The key here is to recognize teens' sexuality; it's to give them information to make decisions that are good for them.

I'm pro-vaccine. And, yeah, maybe I'm biased. That one episode of HPV caused genital warts, which I suffered through and was utterly loathsome. The two minor surgeries I've had to remove portions of my cervix for precancerous cell growth were worse. (Get your annual pap smears, ladies!)

Worst, though? Knowing there are girls out there now who may have to go through that, too, because their parents are so nervous about their sexual lives they're afraid to protect their daughters.

Well, perhaps they'll at least make sure the virginal little darlings memorize the spelling of vas deferens. I'm sure that knowledge will come in useful for me somewhere down the road.

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