Monday, January 23, 2006

". . . how can you not be for a cancer vaccine?"

While a vaccine against cancer sounds too good to be true, for the Christian Right it is too true to be good. Because there is such a vaccine for at least one cancer, cancer of the cervix, and the Christian Right doesn't like it.

The problem of course is one of their usual hangups, sex. Because cervical cancers are strongly linked to infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can be and often is sexually transmitted. Papillomas are benign, wart-like tumors that can be found in lots of different organs. Many are caused by a family of viruses, the papilloma viruses, of which there are more than a hundred. About thirty of them are transmitted by sexual contact. Most of them don't cause malignant tumors (cancers) but about a dozen subtypes are strongly associated with a variety of cancers, including cancers of the soft palate, vulva, vagina, penis, anus and cancer of the cervix. It is this last connection which is most solidly established, to the point that we believe most cervical cancers are caused by papillomaviruses of particular subtypes. There is a good rundown at a National Cancer Institute site here.

Because HPV can be transmitted sexually, a major risk factor is having multiple sexual partners. And because infections can be silent or difficult to identify, the public health goal is to prevent infection in the first place. You know how the Bush administration wants to do this--abstinence. Public health professionals have nothing against this (except maybe for themselves!), but they are also realistic about the biological forces connected with reproducing the species. "Just say No" is not one of the more effective preventive measures.

But vaccines are. And what it is preventing--cervical cancer--is a nasty disease, killing a quarter of a million women each year. That's eighty World Trade Centers worth of deaths--each year. Now two companies have developed effective HPV vaccines. Good news? Not if you are the Family Research Council and other forced childbirth activists:
Conservative groups, including the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, have already suggested that vaccinating young girls would send them a message that premarital sex is acceptable. Christian-oriented Web sites have also been following objections to the vaccines more closely than mainstream news organizations.

[Dr. Joel Palefsky, a UC San Francisco professor who is an expert on HPV] characterized concerns that the HPV vaccines will encourage promiscuity as "nonsense."

"There's no evidence to suggest that the risk of HPV is a factor in someone's decision whether or not to have sex," he said. (He also pointed out the vaccine is somewhat of a boon to HPV education efforts since news coverage of its development is probably acquainting many people with the virus for the very first time. (SF Bay Guardian)
One of the new vaccines, Cervarix, is made by GlaxoSmithKline and is about to be marketed in Europe. The other, Gardasil, made by Merck, is working its way through FDA approval. Given FDA shenanigans that kept Plan B (the "morning after pill") off drugstore shelves against the advice of its own scientists, it is not sure FDA will act on this lifesaving vaccine in a timely manner, and even if approved, whether the government will include it in its official vaccine recommendations. These recommendations find their way onto state lists of inoculations required for school and also affect insurance reimbursements.
Alan Kaye, who became the executive director of the National Cervical Cancer Coalition after the disease killed his wife, told us he hopes critics of the vaccine back down. "I can tell you, with a ripped heart, that anyone who's ever battled cancer themselves or with family or friends would be for it," he said. "I mean, how can you not be for a cancer vaccine?" (SF Bay Guardian)
I guess we know the answer to that.