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."
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."
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.