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Fri., June 21, 2013

Editorial: Separate lifesaving HPV vaccine from politics

Recent research delivered great news about the plunge in infections due to the HPV vaccine, but a virulent strain of unfounded fear mixed with old-fashioned hope still lurks in the background.

Remember the sparring between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann during the presidential primary last year? Bachmann jabbed Perry for making the vaccine mandatory for sixth-grade girls. The governor declined to counterpunch even though science was firmly in his corner. Eventually, the Texas Legislature threw in the towel, rescinding the mandate.

Bachmann claimed the vaccine causes mental retardation. It was a low blow that’s been proven false. But if you doubt the power of the Unfounded Fear lobby, note that Bachmann was deemed the winner of that particular debate point.

The human papillomavirus causes cancer in about 19,000 American women and 8,000 men annually. About 14 million people are infected each year, but most of the time they never know it because it doesn’t develop into cancer. An estimated one in four Americans are infected.

The HPV vaccine was introduced in 2006, but because the virus is transmitted through intercourse, it’s gotten caught up in politics of adolescent sex. The vaccination regime (three shots over the course of several months) is most effective before girls become sexually active. So the targeted ages are 11 and 12. That alone makes many people uncomfortable.

Research released Wednesday shows that since the vaccine became available, the proportion of all girls ages 14 to 19 (vaccinated or not) who got infected dropped 56 percent. Among those who were vaccinated, it was 88 percent. It’s important to note that only one-third of girls have gotten all three shots; half have gotten at least one shot.

These results call for a rapid expansion of vaccinations, but each shot costs about $130. Help is on the way.

Under the Affordable Care Act, all new private insurance policies must include the vaccination at no cost to patients. Medicaid is expanding coverage, too. These are wise moves that will save lives.

At the outset, the public health campaign was aimed at girls, but recent research shows it can ward off infections and cancers (head and throat, for instance) in boys, too.

The mature public health approach would be to treat this like the rubella vaccine, which is also most effective before women become sexually active. Rubella (German measles) is a serious threat to pregnant women because it can cause birth defects. But only a handful of cases occur each year because of the widespread acceptance of the vaccine.

A similar success story can be written for HPV if it doesn’t get ensnared in the politics of sex. Some opponents believe the specter of cancer helps persuade young people to refrain from intercourse. From a public health perspective, that’s a dangerous roll of the dice that fails to capitalize on the proven effectiveness of vaccination.

The results of this recent research suggest we can deliver a knockout blow against HPV if we stay in the ring. Now is not the time to flinch.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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