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Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Vote for Cervical Cancer?

The US version of the Taliban-the Christian right-has for a while now been opposed to a new vaccine that immunizes young women against the human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus which a) causes cervical cancer, and b) is sexually transmitted. Gardasil, a product of Merck & Co., claims to protect against 4 types of HPV, including the two types that cause most cervical cancers. Statistics show about 20-40 million people are infected with HPV and around 3,700 women die of cervical cancer in the United States alone each year. That's a lot of sickness going around. Right wingnuts are opposed to the vaccinations because they say it would give young women a sense of false security about how protected they are from STDs and cancer and thus encourage promiscuity (yes, read that again, slowly).

I'd like to take a poll right here and now about how many of you ladies even knew HPV existed when you lost it (my unofficial guess: less than one tenth of one-half of one percent), if you did know about HPV you knew it led to cervical cancer, or if you knew that were thinking, gee, I might get cervical cancer when I'm 57. I'd better hold off until I meet "the one" and just pray the man I saved myself for hasn't been exposed, passes it on to me, and kills me anyway. With 20 million people infected, the chances are not slim that might happen....so to hell with it! Take me, take me now!

I think you get my point. Teenagers and young adults are still engaged in the sort of magical thinking that allows them to believe what happens to others doesn't happen to them, and even if it does, they'll be far too old to care. Getting cancer in their fifties has about as much relevance to them as does the last king of Scotland. It's certainly not worth giving up a sexual experience for.

So is the background defining the little drama unfolding in Texas these days. Republican Gov. Rick Perry on Feb. 2nd issued an executive order stating that beginning next year, all sixth-grade girls will receive the vaccination. As one would expect, the state legislature is up in arms about it. Many note cynically that this may have much more to do with Perry's cozy relationship with Merck than an altruistic desire to protect women from cancer, but Perry is holding firm. "Providing the HPV vaccine doesn't promote sexual promiscuity any more than providing the Hepatitis B vaccine promotes drug use," the governor said. "If the medical community developed a vaccine for lung cancer, would the same critics oppose it claiming it would encourage smoking?"

Ouch. Take that, sex police. As usual, nobody took him up on that point because there really is no argument against it, and it's irrelevant to the right's argument anyway. They couldn't care less about smoking; they may care a little about illegal drug use but not every day. What really fries their asses is the knowledge that there are women having sex out there. The fact that they can't control and contain women's sexual behavior drives them mad, to the point where they will withhold information and put lives at risk with their policy initiatives, like abstinence-only sex ed. There is a special place in hell for people who put lives at risk in order to further ideological agendas (and a particularly special place if you happen to be president while doing so, but that's another post).

Anyway, I digress. In order to fight what the right wing perceives as this overwhelming support of unbridled promiscuity, the legislature, led by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, a Republican, has fallen back on what has been a trump card in the past-the idea that the government can't coerce these types of decisions. In a press conference yesterday, Bonnen stated:

"We want families to know the facts...no one here is against a family studying the facts for themselves and deciding this is the right thing to do. What we don't want to do is tell them that we know better than them."

Rep. Bonnen conveniently forgets that the government tells families every day that they know better than them. For one, the state of Texas, through their abstinence-only sex ed policies, tells families that it is morally wrong to teach their children about birth control and condom use; on a more mundane level, it tells families that they have to provide for a minimum amount of schooling for their children. It certainly tells families that unless there is a documented reason not to do so-including a religious reason, which Gov. Perry's order also provides for-it is mandated that "each student shall be fully immunized against diphtheria, rubeola, rubella, mumps, tetanus, and poliomyelitis."

Hmmm...the last documented case of fatal polio in the US was...well, we were declared polio-free in 1979. Diphtheria has affected about 50 people in the US the past 15 years. Compare that to HPV, which currently infects 20-40 million Americans and kills 3,700 women a year by way of cervical cancer. Rep. Bonnen, where's the biggest risk here? Are your children more likely to get polio-a mandatory vaccination I assume you support-or HPV?

It should be noted that the state of Texas-in which I give thanks every day I do not reside-has a great opportunity to be a trailblazer in a public health issue which should be of great importance to all women and the men who love them. For once, you guys...take a stand and do the right thing. Show the world you're about more than hating immigrants and celebrating lethal injections. Do the right thing by the girls of your state, and watch the rest of the country follow your lead.

For once, you could even be ahead of California on a big issue.

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