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Monday, October 31, 2005 

Cervical cancer vaccine and politics as usual

As mentioned in the comments to this post, there is a brewing controversy over upcoming guidelines outlining who should receive the "cervical cancer vaccine," a vaccine against the human papilloma virus (HPV). Briefly, the HPV vaccine is a highly effective (100% in a 2-year clinical trial) vaccine which is targeted against two specific serotypes of the human papilloma virus: HPV 16 and HPV 18. Together, these types cause about 70% of cervical cancers in the United States. Previously, Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian lobby group, has said this about the HPV vaccine:

"Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex," Maher claims, though it is arguable how many young women have even heard of the virus.
Why all this resistance to the vaccine? HPV is a virus that can be spread by "ordinary" sexual transmission, but it can also be spread by skin contact--meaning condoms are not 100% effective in preventing transmission of the virus. As Maher also mentioned, therefore, abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV. No one is arguing this fact, as far as I know. Nevertheless, these conservative groups seem poised to fight use of this vaccine in teenage girls. Today's Washington Post has an article on the issue, here.

Because the vaccine protects against a sexually transmitted virus, many conservatives oppose making it mandatory, citing fears that it could send a subtle message condoning sexual activity before marriage. Several leading groups that promote abstinence are meeting this week to formulate official policies on the vaccine.

In the hopes of heading off a confrontation, officials from the companies developing the shots -- Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline -- have been meeting with advocacy groups to try to assuage their concerns.

The jockeying reflects the growing influence that social conservatives, who had long felt overlooked by Washington, have gained on a broad spectrum of policy issues under the Bush administration. In this case, a former member of the conservative group Focus on the Family serves on the federal panel that is playing a pivotal role in deciding how the vaccine is used.

"What the Bush administration has done has taken this coterie of people and put them into very influential positions in Washington," said James A. Morone Jr., a professor of political science at Brown University. "And it's having an effect in debates like this."
This isn't small potatoes we're dealing with here. As mentioned in the article, cervical cancer strikes more than 10,000 U.S. women each year, and kills more than 3,700. These are 3,700 preventable deaths. And as one who isn't sooo far out of her teens, even as an infectious disease geek during that time, I had essentially no understanding of HPV. Sure, we learned about sexually transmitted diseases, but most of our sex education class was devoted to, "can this make me pregnant? Can this? How about this?" kind of topics. I can guarantee that probably 75% of my class had no clue what HPV even stood for, much less had an idea that infection could lead to cancer. And the equation of vaccination leading to more promiscuity? C'mon. I'd love to hear any 16-year-old girl rationalize her sexual activity could increase because she was now vaccinated against one particular STD. If she knows enough to understand HPV, then she should also know that there's still HIV, chlamydia, syphillis, herpes, hepatitis B, and others out there, and that infection with those can lead to sterility or even death.

The article notes:

The [conservative Family Research Council] is planning to meet on Wednesday to discuss the issue. On the same day, the Medical Institute for Sexual Health in Austin, which advises conservative groups on sexuality and health issues, is convening a one-day meeting to develop a position statement.
One can only hope that those who actively say they advocate a "culture of life" will put their money where their mouth is, and show that they value those 3,700 women who die of cervical cancer each year--deaths that may soon be completely preventable.


About me

  • I'm Tara C. Smith
  • From Iowa, United States
  • I'm a mom and a scientist, your basic stressed-out, wanna-have-it-all-and-do-it-all Gen Xer. Recently transplanted from Ohio to Iowa, I've spent most of my life in the midwest (with 4 years of college spent out east in "soda" territory). My main interest, and the subject of my research, is infectious disease: how does the microbe cause illness? What makes one strain nasty, and another "avirulent?" Are the latter really not causing any disease, or could some of those be possible for the development of chronic disease years down the road? Additionally, I've spent a lot of time discussing the value of teaching evolution, and educating others about "intelligent design" and other forms of creationism. My interest in history of science and medicine is also useful as a way to tie all of the above interests together. [Disclaimer: the views here are solely my own, and do not represent my employer, my spouse, that guy who's always sitting by the fountain when I come into work, or anyone else with whom I may be remotely affiliated.]
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