For months now, almost every time I’ve opened a magazine I’ve seen a colorful ad, complete with postcards, urging me to “tell someone” that cervical cancer is caused by “certain strains of a common virus.” The ad, which is also featured in a nearly ubiquitous television commercial, might lead you to believe that science has just discovered that cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV.
I’ve written another column for my newspaper gig. This is still rough, but I’d be interested in your feedback. (The youth pastor’s wife part of me comes out in this one!)
The ads would have you believe that the HPV virus is common (it is) and lurking to assault the unwary at every turn (it isn’t). I visited a web page where one woman wrote in to complain that the ads led her to believe that “catching” HPV was as simple as picking up a common cold.
Wrong. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, and its link to cervical cancer has been well-established. In a 1985 book, 1250 Health Care Questions Women Ask, Dr. Joel McIlhaney wrote, “This explains what doctors have known for years about the character of cervical cancer: it is more likely to occur in women who started having intercourse early and who have had many sexual partners . . . If she has had two sexual partners, she has doubled her chance of having this type of change of her cervix. If she has three sexual partners during her lifetime, she has three times the normal risk. This pattern continues up to as many sexual partners a woman might have . . .”
Why the sudden publicity about HPV? Simple. Merck, a pharmaceutical company, has developed Gardasil, a vaccine for four strains of the HPV virus, two of which cause 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. The company stands to make a boatload of money off the vaccine, which will cost between $350-500 per vaccination.
The fine print: in order for Gardasil to be effective, it should be administered before a woman becomes sexually active. A federal advisory panel recommended that the three-dose vaccine be given to all eleven and twelve year old girls. Never mind that the rate of cervical cancer is dropping; never mind that the virus is defeated by most people’s immune systems without causing any symptoms whatsoever.
Never mind that advocates want to vaccinate nearly four million girls to prevent a cancer that will affect less than ten thousand women this year.
Never mind that there are more than 100 types of HPV, and Gardasil only protects against four. Other strains of HPV can cause other cancers. I would list them, but if you’re like me, you’re reading this over your breakfast.
A few years ago, a friend and I had a discussion about our teenage daughters. We were both devoted mothers who did not want our children to be sexually active, but we chose completely different approaches. I gave my daughter advice and instruction. She gave her daughters advice, instruction, and the birth control pill.
In our friendly debate, I said, “Don’t you think that giving your daughters the pill is like saying: “This is a lovely car. I don’t want you to drive it until you are married, but here’s a seat belt and a crash helmet in case you decide to take it for a spin.”
She laughed and said, “I think that’s more realistic than saying, ‘Stay out of the garage!’”
Is it? Given our sexually-themed culture (seen any teen movies lately?), I can understand why a parent might think it logical to provide their children with contraceptives and vaccinations.
But what are we teaching by providing such things? We cannot remove all of the consequences—there are other strains of HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases–so we may be fostering a false sense of invulnerability.
I’m of the opinion that we get what we honor . . . and, to a large degree, what we expect. No mere human is perfect and we all have our weaknesses. But part of growing wise includes learning how to exercise self-control.
A 1952 biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower revealed that he had once been a heavy smoker. Due to health concerns, he quit. The book’s author asked Eisenhower if he found it difficult to be in a room filled with smokers. Was he tempted? Didn’t other people’s enjoyment make him yearn for the cigarettes he’d given up?
The President replied, “No, I just think, I had the will power to quit, and they haven’t.”
So yes, tell someone. Find someone close to you and tell them that you believe in their ability to make good decisions.
P.S. I couldn’t fit this into the article seamlessly (and I had a word limit), but there are also risks to the vaccine. One, if a woman who receives it has been exposed to HPV (and she could have been without knowing it), it will cause a “cancer precursor”–in other words, her cervix will show abnormal cells, a flag for cervical cancer. Second, in the trial, five women who received the vaccination around the time they conceived a child gave birth to children with birth defects.
Oh, yeah. The federal agency stopped just short of REQUIRING this vaccine for female children, but it’s on the list of recommended vaccines. Parents–keep an eye on this one. Everyone, spread the word.