Conservatives favor purity over cancer vaccine

On June 8 the Food and Drug Administration approved a vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV). The vaccine appears to be 100 percent effective at protecting against the most prevalent viruses that cause cervical cancer.

While public health professionals view the vaccine, Gardasil, as miraculous, many conservative organizations oppose it on grounds that — because some diseases caused by HPV are sexually transmitted — its use might encourage promiscuity among adolescent girls.

Cervical cancer is the second most prevalent cancer killer among women in America, striking nearly 14,000 women each year. Of those, nearly 4,000 die annually. Poor women and women of color will benefit the most from the vaccine, as Latino and Black women have the highest rates of cervical cancer. Lower-income women typically lack the funds and health insurance necessary to have regular screenings for HPV.

Despite the benefits of the vaccine, conservative organizations began to rally against it last year. One of its most vocal opponents is the Family Research Council, which describes itself as a group that “promotes the Judeo-Christian worldview as the basis for a just, free and stable society.”

Last October the FRC’s president, Tony Perkins, spoke out strongly against the vaccine. Perkins said, “Our concern is that this vaccine will be marketed to a segment of the population that should be getting a message about abstinence. It sends the wrong message.” He even stated that he would not vaccinate his 13-year-old daughter.

Another organization that promotes abstinence and opposes the vaccine is the Physicians Consortium. The head of the consortium, Dr. Hal Wallis, said, “If you don’t want to suffer these diseases, you need to abstain, and when you find a partner, stick with that partner.” The National Abstinence Clearinghouse, an organization formed “to promote the appreciation for and practice of sexual abstinence (purity) until marriage,” also opposes Gardasil.

Now that Gardasil has FDA approval, conservative organizations are strategizing to blunt its acceptance and discourage its use. Much of this effort is directed toward the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), the group that advises the Centers for Disease Control about which immunizations to make mandatory and how to finance them.

In 2003 President Bush appointed Reginald Finger, M.D., to the ACIP. Until last fall, Finger was also the medical affairs analyst for Focus on the Family, the nation’s largest and most powerful evangelical Christian organization. In an effort to gain the support of this group, Merck & Co., Gardasil’s manufacturer, has been forced to aggressively lobby Focus. Merck has admitted to holding numerous meetings with Finger at Focus’ headquarters. It is troubling that a vaccine manufacturer has to be concerned with securing the backing of a conservative Christian organization.

Merck will likely have an uphill battle. Another spokesman for Perkins’ Family Research Council, testifying at an ACIP conference, said, “Because parents have an inherent right to be the primary educator and decision maker regarding their children’s health, we would oppose any measures to legally require vaccination. There is no justification for any vaccination mandate as a condition of public school attendance.” And Focus on the Family issued a formal statement declaring that it “supports widespread (universal) availability of HPV vaccines but opposes mandatory HPV vaccinations for entry to public school.”

But in most instances, parents can’t pick and choose what vaccinations they want their children to receive in order to attend public schools. Children are required to be vaccinated against measles, mumps, chicken pox and various other diseases. Public health experts recommend that the HPV vaccine be administered to children between the ages of 11 and 12, before sexual activity commences. And there’s no scientifically defensible reason that it shouldn’t be universally administered.

Of course, there’s the rub. The only objection to the HPV vaccine is based on religious principle. But religious values and beliefs shouldn’t affect FDA approval or recommendation by the ACIP. From a public health perspective, we can’t continue to allow conservatives to depict science as a cultural bogeyman.