Today I am featuring a guest column by Nevada NOW President Jessica Brown. Here she breaks down the supposed controversy surrounding the HPV vaccine and myths that have come out of the media who cover it.
The truth about the HPV vaccine
With little haste, local television, newspapers and radio broadcasts have jumped on the “controversy” over the HPV Vaccine, known in more sane circles as an “incredible breakthrough” in women’s health.
Right-wing ideologues work very hard to make anything that has to do with women’s reproductive health seem controversial, because they know that the appearance of controversy grabs our collective attention, puts a negative spin on the subject, and conveniently makes for good ratings and newspaper sales.
If you’ve been paying attention to local news, you may be under the impression that the vaccine is controversial among public health officials and that the Nevada legislature is considering legislation that would make the vaccine mandatory for girls going to public schools. Of course, neither of these things is true.
To understand what is actually being proposed in the Nevada legislature, and why other states are making the vaccine mandatory, it helps to understand what HPV and Gardasil are. Journalists have been heavy on the fake controversy, but pithy on the actual facts. The following is from the Centers for Disease Control, FDA and Merk websites:
- By the age of 50, more than 80% of American women will have contracted at least one strain of HPV. HPV is highly communicable. Condoms do not protect against HPV.
- HPV causes 99% of cervical cancer cases.
- All women who have ever been sexually active are encouraged get a yearly pap-smear solely to detect cancer cells caused by HPV.
- There are more than 30 strains of HPV. Four of these strains are responsible for causing cancer. Other strains cause genital warts.
- The HPV vaccine, Gardasil, protects against the two strains of HPV that cause 70% of cervical cancer cases, and one strain of HPV that causes 90% of genital warts.
- Both men and women are carriers of HPV. To eradicate the disease, men will eventually need to be vaccinated. Studies are being conducted now to determine the efficacy of vaccinating boys with the current vaccine.
- The vaccine was tested in over 11,000 girls (ages 9 to 26). It has no side effects, and is considered completely safe. It does not contain mercury, thimerosal or live virus (only dead virus).
- 12,000 Americans die from cervical cancer every year, and there are thousands more who are treated for cervical cancer by freezing the cervix with liquid nitrogen or hysterectomy.
- The vaccine is delivered in a series of three shots over three months at a cost of $360 or more for those who are uninsured.
- The FDA and CDC recommend that girls and women between the ages of 12 and 26 get vaccinated.
From a public health perspective, getting as many girls vaccinated as early and as quickly as possible will reduce the cases of cervical cancer among middle-aged women in 30 to 40 years and reduce the transmission of this highly communicable disease. Unfortunately, there are hurdles to getting this done. These include the limited understanding by many people that HPV causes cervical cancer, the difficulty of getting pre-teens and teens into the doctor’s office to get a shot, and the high cost of the vaccine (more than $360 per dose).
One way to bring down the cost of the vaccine and to educate the public on the benefits of vaccination is to make it mandatory for girls entering school. This approach has been taken with vaccines for mumps, measles, rubella, and hepatitis (which is also sexually transmitted) so many state legislators have penned bills that do just that. Who knew that religious ideologues would put up such a stink about making the vaccine mandatory? Well, apparently, state legislators did because each piece of legislation introduced in state legislatures has an opt-out policy for those with religious objections.
This opt-out policy is what makes the controversy over the vaccination fake. Parents who object to the vaccination can simply write a letter to the school principle saying something to the effect that protecting their daughter against cancer is contrary to their religious practices; that God will protect girls who wait to have sex until after marriage (and presumably only with husbands who are virgins until marriage); that sexual assault is preventable; and that a hypodermic filled with dead HPV vaccine is the female equivalent to Viagra. (Seriously – one has to wonder about conservative religious ideologues who claim that getting a shot encourages girls to have sex…)
So, it is clear that religious fundamentalists not only want to deny their daughters the vaccine, but they also want to push their agendas on the rest of America. Apparently, God wants “bad” girls and non-fundamentalists to get cancer.
Of course all of this is moot in Nevada because we don’t have a bill making the vaccine mandatory, though you wouldn’t know it from the local news. State Sen. Dina Titus introduced a bill that would require insurance companies to cover the cost of the vaccine. The only people opposed to the legislation in Carson City were (surprise!) lobbyists for insurance companies. (Someone even posted a comment on the Nevada Legislature website asking the legislature not to support the Titus bill because it would make the vaccine mandatory.) The bill passed the Senate before Republicans who originally voted for the bill rescinded their vote on the demand that insurers who cover county employees (such as those in our own Clark County) be exempt. It eventually passed with this exemption. But the Assembly put the requirement to cover county employees back into the bill and combined it with a different bill that would mandate insurance coverage of prostate exams for men. Now it goes back to the Senate, where at least one Republican will have to vote for it for the bill to pass.
Meanwhile, Nevada’s women wait.