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Conservatives Favor ‘Purity’ over Cancer Vaccine

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Message Gene C. Gerard
Late last month a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel unanimously recommended approval of a vaccine for the human papilloma virus (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 as miraculous, many conservative organizations opposed it on the grounds that it might encourage promiscuity among adolescent girls. Now that it appears certain that the FDA will approve the vaccine, conservatives are attempting to discourage its use.

The pharmaceutical giant Merck produced the vaccine known as Gardasil. It will be nothing short of a lifesaver for many women. 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 the most vocal opponents was the Family Research Council. The council "promotes the Judeo-Christian worldview as the basis for a just, free, and stable society." Last October the council's president, Tony Perkins, spoke decidedly against the vaccine. Mr. Perkins proclaimed, "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 is the Physicians Consortium. The head of the consortium, Dr. Hal Wallis, was also critical. In his opinion, "If you don't want to suffer these diseases, you need to abstain, and when you find a partner, stick with that partner." The founder of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse also opposed the vaccine. This organization was formed "to promote the appreciation for and practice of sexual abstinence (purity) until marriage." Leslee Unruh, the organization's founder, stated firmly, "I personally object to vaccinating children against a disease that is 100 percent preventable with proper sexual behavior."

Now that FDA approval is all but certain, conservative organizations are strategizing to blunt acceptance of the vaccine. Much of this effort is directed toward the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). This committee is a part of the Centers for Disease Control, and is responsible for establishing the classification of vaccines that the government recommends. This recommendation prompts states to require a particular vaccination, typically guarantees that insurance companies will cover it, and determines the level of public funding.

In 2003 President Bush appointed a medical doctor, Reginald Finger, to the ACIP. Until last fall, Dr. 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 has been forced to aggressively lobby Focus. Merck has admitted to holding numerous meetings with Dr. Finger at Focus' headquarters. It's troubling that a vaccine manufacturer has to be concerned with securing the backing of a conservative Christian organization. And Merck will likely have an uphill battle.

Although children are required to have various vaccinations before attending public schools, conservatives are against the ACIP recommending this for the HPV vaccine. The Christian Medical & Dental Associations is an organization that "exists to glorify God by advancing Biblical principles in bioethics and health to the Church and society." The group's executive director, Dr. Gene Rudd, has stated, "While accepting HPV vaccine is morally acceptable, it should not be mandatory."

And the Family Research Council has gone even farther. While testifying before an ACIP conference the council's spokesman informed the ACIP that, "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 effect 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.
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_______________________________________________ Gene C. Gerard has taught history, religion, and ethics for 14 years at several colleges in the Southwest and is a contributing author to the book "Home Front Heroes: Americans during Wartime," by (more...)
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