A new STD vaccine, but not a new policy

Even the hint of medical breakthroughs can create hope for families faced with debilitating ailments. Unfortunately, irrational opposition all too often accompanies such breakthroughs.

Before getting to that opposition, it is important to understand the breakthrough to which I am referring. Imagine for a minute a vaccine that can prevent cancer – a preventive three-shot series that could alter the grim statistic of approximately 3,900 women who die every year from cervical cancer.

There is, however, no need to imagine because this vaccine exists today. In June 2006, the Food and Drug Administration approved Merck and Co.’s Gardasil as the “first vaccine developed to prevent cervical cancer, precancerous genital lesions and genital warts due to human papillomavirus (HPV).”

Clearly, this vaccine sounds like a win-win situation for American women. Get a few shots and hopefully prevent genital warts and a large percentage of cervical cancers. In fact, it appears so promising that many states, including Florida, are considering legislation to make it a mandatory part of the preventive vaccine schedule.

But social conservative groups such as the Family Research Council and Focus on Family are in full attack of any such plan. Somehow, helping to prevent cancer by making a vaccination mandatory for girls 11 to 12 years old is anathema. In fact, they argue that such an idea “removes parental rights.”

Presenting a laundry list of assertions with no basis – including the claim that this vaccine will promote promiscuity – these groups seem willing to promote the indefensible – their own form of child abuse.

For example, there’s Alice Miller, a mother of three who was interviewed by the Bradenton Herald. Although her girls are beyond the age that would require the vaccination, she said that, “It’s only relevant for girls that are sexually active,” and went on to say, “I think my girls are capable of showing self-restraint and good character.”

Ignoring her implication that girls who are sexually active must not have good character, Ms. Miller overlooks the risk that she is putting her girls in. With more than 50 percent of sexually active adults being infected with HPV, her daughters could come in contact with a carrier of the virus later in life with little protection against it due to their mother’s shortsightedness.

But alas, the legislature has given parents such as Ms. Miller a way out. While many news stories frame the debate over the HPV vaccine being mandatory, there aren’t going to be state officials combing the state looking for girls to strap down on gurneys to get their HPV vaccine.

Indeed, in at least one version of Florida’s bill, parents could opt out of the approximately $360 vaccination series for “moral or religious reasons.” So opponents of the legislation can simply print off the latest position paper on the HPV vaccine from Focus on the Family and provide it to their local school district. After all, Florida legislators don’t want to get in the way of parents who want to be irresponsible.

Honestly, I am a little surprised this vaccine has created such a stir. As Manatee County’s top health authority Dr. Elvin Adams has indicated, children are already given a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease that causes liver cancer. It’s called the hepatitis B vaccine. I don’t see any parents picketing that.

If the HPV vaccine remains purely voluntary, despite educational efforts to make the public aware of the need, many parents will simply never bring it up with their doctor. Legislation requiring the shots for public school children will cause parents to take it more seriously. And as state Sen. Mike Fasano, a conservative Catholic and supporter of Florida’s bill, has pointed out, state funds would be set aside to help cover the costs for uninsured families.

As with any medical procedure, the HPV vaccine is not without risks, but in this case, the benefits outweigh them. Parents may believe abstinence is the best approach to teenage sexuality, but protecting children against a deadly disease is just sound parenting.

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.