Social Warfare

Conservative state lawmakers make a pre-emptive strike against HPV vaccines in the name of abstinence

Some conservative lawmakers have been so unnerved by the newfangled human papillomavirus vaccine that they've taken the unprecedented step of barring schools from requiring it for enrollment.

They've done this despite the fact that Immunization Program Office officials at the Arizona Department of Health Services weren't even discussing mandating the vaccine in the coming years. No other vaccine has ever been prohibited by law in Arizona.

"The very fact that the Legislature has named the vaccination means that if, in the future, this turns out to be a very important vaccine for reasons we don't know now, the Department of Health Services will have to go back to the Legislature to get the vaccine," said Mary Griffith, a member of the Arizona Nurses Association public policy committee.

Officials don't normally require a vaccine for admission to school until it has gained widespread acceptance, there's a demonstrated need for it and it's been on the market for a long time. The HPV vaccine, manufactured by Merck under the brand name Gardasil, has only been on the market for about a year.

HPV inoculations, given in three separate doses at $120 a pop, confer immunity against four strains of the virus that have been linked to 70 percent of cervical cancers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the vaccine be administered to girls before they become sexually active--at as young as 9 years old.

Girls and women who have had sex can still benefit from the vaccine. However, it is less effective if they've already contracted one or more of the four HPV strains through intercourse. Two studies conducted in the '90s showed that between 28 and 46 percent of women under the age of 25 have HPV.

Before adjourning for the summer, the state Legislature passed a budget that included $2.9 million in HPV-vaccine funding for women ages 21 through 26, who are eligible for the state's indigent health-care plan. But Republican Sen. Karen Johnson, who represents Phoenix, tied that and other vaccination funding for the underinsured to the school-enrollment prohibition.

Johnson and supporters of the ban have said state officials can't be trusted to make a decision about the vaccine--insinuating that lawmakers like Johnson, on the other hand, are the perfect people to decide such things. (An assistant of Johnson's said she was on vacation and unavailable for comment.)

But the big issue is that HPV is transmitted through sex--and conservatives around the country have railed against the vaccine, claiming that inoculating girls will lead to promiscuity.

"This is not a disease that schoolchildren catch sitting at a desk," Cathi Herrod, president of the conservative Center for Arizona Policy, told The Arizona Republic. Herrod's organization--one of the prime forces behind last year's failed initiative that would have constitutionally banned government recognition of gay marriages and domestic partnerships--supported the school prohibition.

When asked about that quote in the Republic, Herrod said HPV--unlike polio or tuberculosis--is not passed through the air, so there's no need for a mandatory vaccination program. "HPV is transmitted through sexual contact," she said. "It's not likely to happen in a school classroom."

Kinky classroom trysts aside, Herrod's argument seems weak when considering that the state requires schoolchildren be inoculated against hepatitis B, which is transmitted through sex or contaminated blood.

Herrod emphasized that the Center for Arizona Policy is not opposed to HPV vaccinations; they simply believe parents and medical professionals should be given a choice. In taking that stand, she took a page from the rhetorical playbook used by social conservatives across the country.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, is on record as saying that he wouldn't have his teenage daughter vaccinated against HPV, because doing so would send "the wrong message" about the importance of abstinence.

After realizing that it was hard making a convincing case for cancer, social conservatives like Perkins chose a subtler line of attack against the vaccine, advocating for parent choice instead of government mandates--but the ideological underpinnings of their arguments remain.

Experts, however, say there is little evidence to suggest that being vaccinated against HPV would lead girls or women to have more sex than they would without it. Using similar logic to that employed by social conservatives, a person could also object to seatbelts on the grounds that they encourage people to drive recklessly and get into accidents.

"Vaccinating someone against a disease is not connected to their behavior," said Sen. Debbie McCune Davis, a Democrat from Phoenix. She also serves as the Arizona Partnership for Immunization's program director.

The vaccine is already being administered in Arizona, and private doctors say it's popular with their patients, according to McCune Davis.

All this chatter about subjecting youngsters to supposed messages on sex may be obscuring the bottom-line fact that there is a vaccine available right now that has been proven to spare many women from the agonies of cervical cancer. About $2 billion a year is spent on treating these malignancies.

"I think the most important thing is that this vaccine allows women to protect themselves against cervical cancer," McCune Davis said. "That's a very good thing. It's sad that it's gotten dragged into this social warfare."

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