Tuesday, November 15, 2005

HPV vaccine revisited

We wrote about it here: Human papilloma virus vaccine.

You know, the good news on October 6 about how one of several HPV vaccines now under development proved 100% effective at preventing cervical cancer and precancerous lesions. We also referenced a report from last April that some fundie Christians like the Family Research Council were gearing up to oppose use of this vaccine, because, just like the original birth control pill over 40 years ago, anything that can reduce the risks of having sex is bound to play havoc with the fundies' abstinence agenda.

Well very soon after our last report, this controversy was back in the news, with a vengeance.

First we have a straight, factual story about what this vaccine means to both women and men:

Cervical cancer vaccine (October 20, 2005)
Genital warts are caused by a virus called Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV. HPV is passed from person to person through sex and comes in many different forms, some of which cause genital warts, some of which have no noticeable symptoms at all. Almost 80 per cent of the adult population – whether they notice it or not – will at some point in their lives be infected with this virus.
Well, so what? Here's what:
But then in the 80’s a German scientist discovered that this common and seemingly insignificant virus causes cervical cancer.

Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women, behind breast cancer. It’s most common in 30 to 50 year old women and nearly half a million women worldwide developed cervical cancer in 2002. Each year in Australia, about 740 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed and around 270 women die from it.

Now we know that not only does HPV cause cervical cancer, it’s the sole cause. In a study published in 1999, researchers found traces of HPV DNA in 99.7 per cent of the cervical cancer cases they looked at.
That was the bad news. But here's the good news:
Some time in 2006 we should see a new vaccine enter the market. Recent trials have shown that this vaccine, designed to protect against the two main cancer-causing forms of HPV (HPV-16 and HPV-18), prevents persistent infection by the virus in 100 per cent of the vaccinated women, and reduces cervical abnormalities by 90 per cent.

The promise of this vaccine will be to demote cervical cancer from a major to a very minor cancer. Researchers hope that it will reduce rates of cervical cancer in women across the world by 70 per cent and save around 200,000 lives every year.
Wonderful, no? Something that could, every year, save the lives of 200,000 young people who would, except for cervical cancer caused by HPV, mostly be healthy adults. Of course, there are a few legitimate questions:

Cervical cancer vaccine raises questions (October 26, 2005)

Some people are also concerned about whether existing cervical cancer screening programs will suffer, if vaccinating against some HPV strains will lead to other strains "taking over" and how to convince parents that vaccinating their children against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is a good idea.
Fair enough. That's a legitimate scientific concern. But remember the Christian fundies, who were already on this case, as mentioned earlier? Well guess what, they're still on the case:

Cervical Cancer Vaccine Gets Injected With a Social Issue (October 31, 2005)

A new vaccine that protects against cervical cancer has set up a clash between health advocates who want to use the shots aggressively to prevent thousands of malignancies and social conservatives who say immunizing teenagers could encourage sexual activity.
And not only that, but the Bush administration has slotted the fundies into positions of governmental power:

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."
Some reader reaction to this article makes additional good points:

Moral Choices in a Cancer Vaccine (November 3, 2005)

The concerns about vaccination voiced by the Christian Medical and Dental Associations and the Family Research Council reveal a "better dead than red" mentality by which these organizations place their "values" above the lives of millions of women.
To put it even more bluntly, these conservative organizations prefer that women should die, rather than have the opportunity of safer sex. So much for their propaganda about a "culture of life". Another commentator, Cenk Uygur, says it well:

Why the Christian Right Doesn't Want to Fight Cervical Cancer (November 5, 2005)

But this isn’t just about controlling our sex lives anymore. This is a matter of life and death. Now they’ve gone way past acceptable. Letting over 3,000 women die of cervical cancer each year because you think it might lead to promiscuity and pre-marital sex? This is the point where your religious fanaticism ceases to be anachronistically amusing and becomes downright dangerous.
Stay tuned. There's more to this story. Much more.

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