The HPV Vaccine: Weeding Through the Controversy For the Sake Of My Black Girls

It was never a question for us the pediatrician would say the girls were due for this vaccine or that one, and we’d hold Mari and Lila and comfort them while the nurses pumped their arms or their legs with the protective brews. It was very simple: Kids get and pass along all kinds of cooties from one to the other; the shots would protect our babies from both contracting and spreading said cooties. Honestly, it never occurred to us to question their safety. The worst thing that’s ever happened to our daughters after getting a shot? The nurse ran out of Princess Tiana band-aids for the girls’ boo boos.

So I feel like a crap mom when I try to explain why I’ve been dragging my feet on giving our pediatrician the O.K. to give Mari a series of shots doctors say will protect her from HPV, a sexually-transmitted disease that happens to be one of the leading causes for cervical cancer. The shots are supposed to be given to girls sometime between ages 11 and 12, before they become sexually active and put themselves at risk for getting the disease. My pediatrician, an amazing doctor and mom who insists she plans on giving the vaccine to her own daughters when they’re old enough, has been at me for two years to give the series of shots three in all, administered six months apart to my 12-year-old, and each time, I’ve hesitated. Said, “let’s wait one more year.”

My concerns: The HPV vaccine is relatively new I mean compared to those for polio, the measles, chicken pox, and pertussis. How do I, as a mom, pump a drug into my baby that I’ve never been exposed to myself? And how do I bring myself to trust that the vaccine won’t harm her over the long-term, particularly considering that it’s a mere baby on the market?

Plus, the truth of the matter is that I’ve been reading way too many stories of late about the U.S. government’s involvement in experiments and medical procedures meted out unknowingly on people of color across the globe: women sterilized against their will in Puerto Rico; Guatemalans intentionally given syphilis in experiments that eerily resembled the Tuskegee syphilis experiments conducted on black men through the early 1970s; black children purposely exposed to dangerous levels of lead and, despite severe cases of lead poisoning, left untreated by the doctors studying their effects. These things happened in my parents lifetime. My lifetime. In the case of the black children, just years before I gave birth to a black child of my own.

These are the things running through my mind when the needles come out. Particularly when it involves my daughters.

But then, a few weeks ago, Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, candidate for the Republican 2012 presidential nomination and self-proclaimed Mama Bear who, when it comes to policy that directly affects mothers and children, always seems to fall on the wrong side of doing right by us, made me see just how dumb, unreasonable and dramatic I’m being when it comes to the HPV vaccine. During a nationally-televised Republican nominee debate, she spoke vehemently against making the vaccine mandatory, and later said in an interview with Fox News that someone told her that her kid suffered retardation after receiving the vaccination.

Listening to Bachmann made me realize how stupid I sound making grand pronouncements about my reservations with the HPV vaccine without doing so much as a simple Google search to check out the prevailing wisdom on its safety. It sure didn’t seem like Bachmann had bothered; twice, she repeated that story about this mystery mom telling her that her daughter suffered HPV vaccine-induced retardation. Since then, she’s neither produced the mom nor has she offered even a shred of research or evidence to back up her words.

I’m better than this.

So I Googled (of course) and came across a report from the Centers For Disease Control detailing reports, tests and statistics on the HPV vaccine, Gardasil. As of June 22, 2011, 35 million doses have been administered, with 18,727 reports of adverse effects. Ninety-two percent of the adverse effects were considered “non-serious” events like fainting, pain, swelling at the injection site, headache, nausea and fever. The remaining 8 percent of those who had problems after getting the shots reported blood clots, the contraction of the neurological disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and death.

Still a little shaken by that miniscule but real number of girls who had serious problems after getting the vaccine, I asked a friend of mine if she could arrange for me to talk to an expert on HPV, gynecological issues and the vaccine, and she hooked me up with Dr. Vanessa Cullins, the vice president of medical affairs at Planned Parenthood. Dr. Cullins was gracious enough to answer my many concerns, and actually made a really sound case for why I should roll up my daughter’s sleeve and get with the Gardasil. First, she allayed my fears about the historical legacy of harmful medical studies by reminding me that the drug has been around for five years and that before that, it had gone through extensive clinical trials in both animals and humans before it hit the market. “Besides,” she added, “more white females have received this vaccine than black ones.”

That more black girls aren’t getting vaccinated is sad, she added, because while the numbers of black women who get cervical cancer are less than their white counterparts, black women are more likely to die from the disease. Plus, a 2008 study on sexually-transmitted diseases found that almost half of black girls between ages 15 to 19 had an STD, and about 70 percent of those cases were HPV the very disease the vaccine was created to prevent.

Now, I remember being shocked by that number when I saw that study a few years ago remember asking myself where in the hell we were going wrong that nearly half of black teenage girls were not only carrying a sexually-transmitted disease, but getting it through unprotected sexual intercourse. My assumption as advanced by the myriad of media outlets that reported the study and took great pains to stigmatize young black girls in the process was that black girls were strutting around having unprotected sex and spreading diseases like gonorrhea, chlamydia and herpes all around their high schools. But as Dr. Cullins pointed out, the fact of the matter is that the STD primarily associated with the black girls in that study was, indeed, HPV a disease that you can get pretty easily without having sex. “HPV is an extremely common disease and you get it from skin-to-skin contact, not just sexual intercourse,” Dr. Cullins said. “That’s why it’s so important to give it to kids before they become sexually active. They get their breast buds and the hair beneath their arms and the growth spurts and those hormones start raging and the next thing you know they’re starting to kiss and hold on to each other and little boys might start fingering their vagina they might experiment without going all the way. That’s how easily HPV can spread.”

In other words, black teenage girls aren’t insatiable whores spreading their legs and disease to anyone who looks in their direction; HPV is an easily-contracted disease that causes cervical cancer; and my daughter is in the group that is severely affected by both the disease that can cause the cancer and the cancer that could kill her.

Am I still afraid of the vaccine? I’m not going to lie I am. But I’m more scared of what could happen to my daughter if I don’t take responsibility and get her vaccinated. The numbers don’t lie. The chances of the vaccination causing a neurological problem in my daughter is miniscule compared to the 50% chance of her contracting HPV when she becomes sexually active, and that case of HPV turning into a cancer that can take her life.

*insert image of Denene dialing the pediatrician here*

This post appeared originally on the page on’s The Parenting Post. Check out for more information on vaccines and other great info on child development and raising kids.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. As a nurse, a mother of two brown boys, I can honestly say, the vaccine is very new. Most vaccine takes many many years for perfection. This vaccine are been pushed on parents by special interest groups. Yes cervical cancer is a real danger, however, the reason most African American would die from this diagnose while our white counterparts survives is due to early screening and early intervention. African Americans in general are not active early screeners of many diseases. So with not screening early, this leads to late detection and late interventions. As for STDs and African American girls, most African American girls are coming from broken families and there are many factors that would lead to these young women having unprotected sex at an early age. One of the problems, less parental involvement in the daily lives of their daughter and son, there is also less positive father involvement in these girls lives to allow them to develop better self esteem when it comes to dealing with the pressure of unprotected sex or early sex in general. Parent involvement is a huge impact on the numbers as for African American young women and their acquirement of STDs. Also, African American in general need to be involve in active annual screening for all diseases that we are at risks for that have screening options. This includes annual PAP smear screening, ovarian cancer-trans-virginal screening, STDs, HIV, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.
    Parents of middle school and high school children need to have their kids screen annually for HIV and STD, because all these abnormal sexual activities starts in middle school. Yes, middle school and most parents are not aware that screening for HIV does not include STDs unless they ask specifically. So many people would have STDs undiagnosed with no symptoms. So transmission is very early.
    But coming back to the HPV vaccine, I feel it is safer to wait until this vaccine is very stable. As for now, the adverse side effect is at a moderate level with reactions. Read personal blogs or forums boards of mother with daughter suffering from these adverse effects. Parents can also screen their daughter for the different strains of HPV through annual blood work. As you already mentioned, HPV is not always acquired by intercourse, and not all HPV carries the risks of cervical cancer.

    **Just my two sense, I am not a medical doctor, and this is in no way a medical advise, just my personal opinion.**

  2. Why not just talk to them about their sexually and prepare them that way instead of giving them a vaccine….Planned Parenthood has a notorious history with Black folks in this country and I wouldn’t even consider taking advice from that organization. We suffer from the lack of knowledge, not vaccines.

  3. But Mrs. Benjamin, based on the statistics, isn’t it MUCH more likely for a young girl to contract HPV than for her to have any side effects? So that would mean the consequences and the risks are FAR greater when you wait, correct? It’s just simple math. There are (rare) side effects from the flue vaccine too, but we are still FAR more likely to get the flu if we forego the flu shots than to get a side effect from getting the shots. Indeed, this question is present for every single needle that a doctor sticks in our arms, correct? There is always the possibility of side effects.

  4. Just for informational purposes only (not trying to sway anyone), I had the vaccination series a few years ago. Absolutely no problems. The nurse/technician had me sit down for at least 15 minutes after each shot just in case I became dizzy or nauseous. I was OK each time, and, after my mini-surveillance period, I was allowed to leave. I was much more worried about the affect of possibly allowing myself to be exposed to a disease that could potentially kill me (if not cause me to have to endure many medical visits) than the possible side affects of the vaccine. Just FYI, there are women who have posted about contracting the virus from their husbands–and their husbands were their first and only partners. Not all the women ended up with advanced problems as a result, but the fact is that they still contracted the virus. Some medical professionals don’t even test for the virus or mention it if they do test for it along with a yearly pap because it is said to be “normal” for people to contract it at some point and the virus sometimes clears itself without treatment. That was one of the deciding factors for me when I began my research.

  5. I had the vaccine three years ago and so did a younger sister. No side effects here. And also per the Planned Parenthood comment, i’m not as knowledgable on black issues as most of you seem to be but being uninsured I get most of my medical care through them and haven’t had any problems. I got implanon (a birth control ris inserted in the arm good for three years that usually costs near $700) for free because as I tell everyone who shows an interest in the subject, “I got five sisters and a brother, what do I need belly fruit for?”

  6. I think this is one of the [many] hardest decisions that parents have to make. I have also debated this (which I wrote about here). At the moment I am currently leaning on no, because to me, the drug hasn’t been out very long, and the side effects are very real.

    The thing is, I know there are tons of women who already had it and had no problems with it, but somehow it just doesn’t sit right to give a child a shot that prevents an STD while they going through puberty.

    However, every parent has to make their own choices, and regardless if we agree or not, we should all be supported with which ever decision we choose.

  7. I stumbled on this through a facebook post of the beautiful brown sextuplets, I swear those babies were smiling!

    Anyway, I spent the first 30 years of my nursing career taking care of childbearing women and their kids. Although I am about as white as they come, I advocate for women of all ages, sizes, colors, and creeds. We have been told what to do and when to do it by men for millennia. Here is one thing we can do for our daughters. I am not opposed to waiting another year, but I also know how difficult it can be to get a teenager to do anything. The vaccine is fairly new, to be sure, but severe side effects are so few, and HPV can do more than just cause cervical cancer. It is more likely, especially with new infections, for it to precipitate a c/section in a pregnant woman nearing labor to prevent transmission during the birthing process. A c/section brings risk of severe complications, including death. If we consider the psychological damage that having HPV can cause, disruption of relationships, etc, the effects of HPV can be significant and life-altering.

    Congrats on your beautiful website and I will tell every one of my beautiful brown female friends and patients about it. (And while I’m at it, can I give a plug about breast cancer awareness? I’m a two time survivor and if one woman who gets a mammogram, or seeks care for a breast change, does it because I’ve nagged, then I will die a happy woman!)

  8. HI,

    just wanted to point out that HPV is also carried by boys. So even if my beautiful babe saves herself for marriage (PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE for lots of reasons) what’s to say that her husband has not picked something up during the socially acceptable “sowing of his wild oats.” I’m just sayin’


  9. One commenter wrote that she didn’t think it was right to give a girl a vaccine for a STD during puberty. Parents, have you forgotten that we give infants vaccines for Hepatitis on day one of life. This need not be a zero sum game of educating our daughter (and sons) versus having them vaccinated. In this world, we need to arm our children with every tool and weapon we can against all the ills of the world. Educating your children about sex and sexuality does not mean that they will immediately go out and sleep with anyone with a pulse. We need to realize that our children are merely small, they are NOT stupid. Arm them and aid them and they and we can and will do wondrous things.

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