Suppose medical researchers invented a vaccine to prevent lung cancer. Then suppose the American Lung Association lobbied to ban the vaccine because preventing lung cancer deaths might weaken their anti-smoking campaign. Nuts, right?
Or suppose that Mothers Against Drunk Driving went around cutting seat belts out of teenagers' cars so the kids would be more likely to die if they disobeyed MADD's message. MADD would seem quite "mad," as in crazy.
These loony scenarios are imaginary. Unfortunately, a very real effort has surfaced to suppress new vaccines that prevent cervical cancer in women. You might think that universal joy would greet an effective cancer vaccine. But not in George W. Bush's America, where efforts never cease to nullify programs all over the world that promote women's health and family planning. The objection? Cervical cancer is caused by certain strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV), and those HPV strains are transmitted sexually. HPV infections are extremely common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), by age 50, at least 80 percent of American women will have had an HPV infection, most of which will clear up without treatment.
Of the 80 strains of HPV, strains 16 and 18 cause over 70 percent of cervical cancers. Usually any problems show up first as abnormal cells, which also may clear up. If not, the condition may slowly progress to precancerous cervical lesions and eventually to cancer. Regular gynecological checkups usually catch any abnormality in time for treatment to be completely effective.
Still, CDC statistics show that in 2002, 12,085 U.S. women were diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer and 3,952 died. The disease falls most heavily on low-income women who can't afford yearly checkups to catch problems at an early stage. In the developing world, cervical cancer is the second most fatal cancer in women, killing about 300,000 yearly.
HPV infection in men can cause genital warts and less common types of cancer, and, of course, a man can pass along the virus to his sexual partners. Condoms do not effectively block transmission of HPV viruses, as the virus lives on parts of the genital region that are not covered by condoms. Pharmaceutical giant Merck announced in October that its vaccine, Gardasil, had proved 100-percent effective at preventing infection with HPV strains 16 and 18. GlaxoSmithKline is slightly behind Merck in developing another vaccine, Cervarix.
The manufacturers say the vaccine is most effective if given to girls sometime between the ages of 10 and 16 to prevent initial infection resulting from sexual activity and to produce a stronger immune reaction. The idea of vaccinating young girls has drawn opposition from religio-political organizations that promote abstinence only. For example, Tony Perkins, who heads the Family Research Council, said in an October 2005 Fortune article that the vaccine sent the wrong message about premarital sex and he wouldn't let his daughter get the shots. These groups with "Family" in their name have had some success lobbying against Plan B emergency contraception, the abortion drug RU-486 and even accurate educational materials concerning sexuality.
Similar problems show up around the world, usually where sexual double-standards are most severe. India, for example, may end up vaccinating boys for HPV instead of girls, which is less effective medically but more acceptable culturally.
Ironically, we've just seen local proof that comprehensive sex education works. According to a Jan. 13 Associated Press story, the New Mexico Teen Pregnancy Coalition reported that teen births in our state had declined overall by 11 percent between 1998 and 2004. The Coalition attributed the decrease to "increased education by mothers, more discussions between parents and teens, comprehensive sex education programs and improved use of contraceptives," specifically by 86 percent of sexually active teens. Abstinence has also played a part in the decrease. (You may have missed this story about the link between teen pregnancy and poverty in the Albuquerque Journal. It was hilariously and misleadingly headlined "48% of School Kids Get Free Lunches.")
Our laws concerning parental rights, religious belief and children's health are murky. Reluctantly, I would accept the right of religious conservatives to refuse vaccination for their own children, even though such exemptions destroy the hope of an epidemiological home run. But to force a higher risk of cancer on all American children is monstrous.
Sanity may prevail. Even as Tony Perkins was personally condemning the vaccine, other extreme right-wing groups have edged away from such an untenable position. The Oct. 19, 2005 issue of USA Today quotes Wendy Wright of Concerned Women of America. Wright said she originally thought vaccinating preteens would "seem to send a message that we're expecting the girls to be sexually active." But seeing the vaccine as a protection against cancer made her feel more comfortable about it. After all, even total abstinence before marriage can't protect a woman from HPV transmitted by her husband.
In the same article, Perkins' Family Research Council said it was "not commenting on this subject at this time."