One step closer to vaccinating girls against cervical cancer!

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?!


Filed under News and politics, News..., public discourse, sex and health, sexuality

2 responses to “One step closer to vaccinating girls against cervical cancer!

  1. Ben

    Hi, just found your site via MarkDay’s video on Youtube, and was so captured by its vigour that I read the archives up to this point.

    Just FYI though, there is no male equivalent to the female test for HPV , because the female test is dependant on the changes at a cellular level in the cervix. Subclinical HPV (where symptoms – such as warts – do not manifest) in men is not detectable using current methods.

    Love your work, I added your feed. Thanks.

  2. Ben, thank you so much for your comment! And regarding whether or not HPV is detectable in men, I’m curious about your take on this:

    Merck had originally hoped to get the vaccine approved for use in boys. But although women have routinely allowed swabs to be taken of their vaginal cells, the company found that men rebelled against the use of emery boards to collect cells from their penises. Researchers eventually discovered that jeweler’s-grade emery paper effectively removed cells without alarming men and were able to complete their studies.

    It’s the paragraph I linked to in this post, but it is a “registration required” article now. (If you’re looking for it without using the link, it was “U.S. Approves Use of Vaccine for Cervical Cancer,” by Gardiner Harris, June 9, 2006. I haven’t researched it any further, so I don’t know how reliable might be those tests that Merck wanted to try. Anybody know anything about them?