Parents urged to promote sexual health
With the Human Papillomavirus now part of Bermuda's routine Childhood Immunization Schedule, parents are being urged to see it as an opportunity to continue talking about sexual health.
According to Laura Lynn Jackson, child health co-ordinator with the Department of Health, the HPV vaccine is an important part of a conversation that should be started at an early age between parents and their children.
“This is an opportunity for us to become advocates for healthy sexual development and prevention that can be discussed and used for later life,” Ms Jackson told The Royal Gazette.
“It's about good communication and family communication, not starting at adolescence, but starting long before on a lot of other topics, so that when you get to discuss sexuality, the building blocks of communication are already present. We can demystify some of the barriers we have around sexual and reproductive health.”
She added that it was “really about how we prevent HPV so we can have a healthier reproductive tract and have healthy sexual relations”.
“Traditionally, vaccines have been associated with infectious illnesses,” she said, adding that technology has now advanced to cancer prevention.
“That's an important shift because we can realise our sexual health in that domain. It becomes an important discussion that we ask parents to have.
“It's really increasing the communication between parents and adolescents, but not just starting at adolescence.”
She noted that parents of P1 students were given the Become an Askable Parent brochure — a “tool for having conversations with children and understanding their development”.
Therefore, Ms Jackson said, “having the discussion with HPV should be a continuum”.
According to Ms Jackson, parents of M1 students will be receiving letters over the next two to three weeks informing them that the vaccine is now part of the childhood immunisation schedule.
They will also be asked if they feel it should be available in schools.
“The reason we want to do that is to find out whether we should offer it through the school health programme or whether, in fact, families want to have this discussion with their child and with their physician, because we recognise that it's a sensitive area.”
The vaccine is recommended at the preteen age and Ms Jackson said: “For most part, we think 11 is a good age. The good thing about the HPV vaccine is that it is thought to have long-lasting immunity.
“So, giving it at 11 is an opportune time to discuss sexual prevention because it's a time of adolescence and it's a time that normal maturation and growth occurs.
“It's a time for good conversation and discussion.”
Ms Jackson also stressed that having the discussion and getting the HPV vaccine does not encourage sexual activity or promiscuity.
“It's looking at it from a preventive aspect, recognising that adolescents, as young adults, will engage in sexual activity.
“The important take home message is that the risk of HPV is greater after sexual debut and so we have a technology here that will prevent much of that risk if we can be vaccinated before sexual debut.”
HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva and penis. It can also cause genital warts, as well as anal and throat cancer.
It is the most common sexually transmitted disease and more than half of sexually active persons will contract an infection during their lifetime.
In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and may not cause any health problems. However, it can sporadically reoccur and present symptoms.
“There are multiple strains of HPV, but the vaccine we are using is a quadrivalent,” Ms Jackson explained.
It covers four types of HPV — types 6 and 11, which are associated with genital warts, and 16 and 18, which are the high-risk, cancer-causing agents.
The vaccine is recommended for boys and girls, aged 11, as part of the childhood immunisation schedule and it is available for free at the Hamilton Health Centre from 8.30am to 11.30am Monday to Friday.
According to Ms Jackson, the vaccine, which is administered in three doses over six months, is safe and effective. She said there had been no reports of major side effects made through the vaccine adverse events reporting system in Bermuda.
She said that although there had been some cases of fainting, minor side effects include pain and soreness around the injection site.