Parents all over the country are submitting their children for one vaccine that protects against a disease they know nothing about. If you ask the average parent “What is tetanus?”, they are unlikely to provide a complete answer. They probably have only heard of tetanus from the vaccine and not from family stories about ancestors who contracted tetanus.
In fact, these parents are submitting their children for vaccination against a disease well before they will even encounter this disease. One of the most common ways tetanus is contracted is through puncture wounds, such as you might get from stepping on a nail. When was the last time a 2-month old (yes, that’s the age of the first tetanus vaccine) stepped on a nail? And even when they start walking, can’t you just teach them not to step on nails? Isn’t giving a vaccine against tetanus just giving a child permission to walk through construction sites and step on as many nails as they’d like?
What’s more, even though the vaccine is often mandated for school entry, tetanus is not spread to innocent victims. You can’t catch it by breathing, the way you might catch measles or chickenpox. It’s not that we want our children getting lockjaw, but can’t we just parent them really well away from getting it?
What’s that? Tetanus is a horrible and cruel way to die and spreads in multiple ways beyond rusty nails? Tetanus killed 580 people per year in the U.S. before the vaccine? The vaccine could in no way encourage promiscuous walking behavior? You can’t parent a child better as an alternative to vaccination?
I’ll make a deal with you. I will accept that the tetanus vaccine is important for the above reasons if you accept that the HPV vaccine is important for those same reasons. (You knew I was going this direction, didn’t you?)
- HPV can spread in more ways than simple vaginal or anal intercourse. There is evidence that it can be spread through deep kissing, oral sex, and other ways.
- HPV-related cervical cancer kills 4,000 women in the U.S. every year today. (Yikes! That’s more than tetanus!)
- The HPV vaccine does not encourage promiscuity. When deciding whether or not to have sex, it is highly unlikely a young adult is considering their immunization record in the same way toddlers do not consider their tetanus vaccine when walking around.
- Your lovely tween or teen may have promised not to engage in any sexual activity before marriage. However, their virginity is not a guarantee of protection because you are not parenting their future spouse (who could have multiple partners) and because not all sexual activity is consensual. Right now, 79 million Americans have HPV. Some of them were virgins when they got married.
Parents get squeamish thinking about their children’s future sexual activity in ways that they don’t get squeamish thinking about their children’s future walking activity. But we should no more tell parents to forego the tetanus vaccine and just make their children wear shoes outside than we should tell parents to teach their children to use condoms (or make purity promises) in lieu of the HPV vaccine. When it comes down to it, it’s not about walking or sex–it’s about preventing real and deadly diseases. And maybe the tetanus vaccine doesn’t encourage kids to walk on rusty nails after all.