This morning the New York Times reported: “A federal advisory panel voted unanimously yesterday to recommend that all girls and women ages 11 to 26 receive a new vaccine that prevents most cases of cervical cancer.” Yes!! Hints of sensible sex-related policy-making! (Click here for a list of New York Times stories about HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer, to see just how controversial this has been.)
The vaccine, Gardasil, prevents four strains of the HPV virus which are, collectively, responsible for about 70% of all cervical cancers and 90% of all cases of genital warts. But in order to be effective it has to be given before the person is exposed to the virus. Because so many people have HPV that this means giving the vaccine before sexual activity begins. (In another recent story, the New York Times reported that in the US 20 million people are infected with HPV each year, and that by age 50, 80% of women have been infected).
That’s why this recommendation is so important. By recommending that all girls and women ages 11-26 be given the vaccine, the advisory panel recognizes and accepts as real that girls are sexually active and should still be protected, and it brings the federal government one step closer to committing funds to provide those vaccines for poorer people. (Cervical cancer disproportionately affects the poor because so many middle- and upper-class women get regular Pap smears which can detect abnormal cells so they can be removed before they turn into cancer.)
Problems will arise when it comes time to address the question of making the vaccines mandatory. The vaccine, made my Merck, is “more expensive right now than all other childhood vaccines put together,” says John Schiller of the National Cancer Institute (quoted in today’s New York Times story). Also according to the Times, many states already struggle to provide the vaccines they currently mandate. In addition, while some conservative groups have either supported or not taken a position on the vaccine, others are vocal in opposing making it mandatory. Linda Klepacki of Focus on the Family, quoted today in the Times, explains the opposition thus: “You can’t catch the virus, you have to go out and get it with sexual behavior.” Previously she has been quoted in the Times saying, “We can prevent it by the best public health method, and that’s not having sex before marriage.” The problem, of course is that the person you marry might also be infected.
There is only a small amount of talk about men in all of this. If women are getting infected through sex, of course many men must also be infected. Merck intends for Gardasil to eventually be available to boys and young men, but, ironically, couldn’t get approval as quickly as it did for girls and women because it had a hard time getting men to agree to be studied. See the last paragraph of this article from the June 9, 2006 issue of the New York Times for an explanation! Which leaves me with a question:
If women need to have regular pap smears to help protect them from cervical cancer, why don’t men have to have regular penis filings to protect women from cervical cancer?!