“Would you like a cancer vaccine?” “Oh, no thanks.”

I do not get this.

Some years ago, one of the nastier cancers humans can suffer from was found to have an easily targeted cause: the sexually-transmitted human papilloma virus, or HPV. HPV is usually fought off by the immune system, but in some women it survives for years before stealthily converting cervical surface cells into cancer cells. Once the cancer is established, treatment is a fairly awful procedure and there are no guarantees of survival. (One of my close coworkers died from cervical cancer. The last months of her life were not what we’d call high quality.)

But when HPV was nailed down as a major cause, scientists turned their attention to creating a vaccine. And they succeeded. Not in time for adult women, because the vaccine works best if given before a child becomes sexually active (and thus has potential prior exposure to the virus). But still, in a world where cancer scares the pants off just about everybody, the idea of an actual vaccine against one form of cancer should have everyone dancing in the streets, right?

Today’s Guardian, reporting on a just-published Australian study regarding the success of the vaccine, comments that vaccination rates in the UK have been good, “in spite of worries that parents would refuse to have their daughters vaccinated against what is essentially a sexually-transmitted virus.”


A February 2010 Yale Journal of Medicine & Law article notes that

Controversy over the product began before it was licensed, when some religious conservatives expressed concern that the availability of a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease would undermine abstinence-based pre­vention messages. Advocacy groups such as Focus on the Family ultimately came to support availability of the vaccine, but they remain opposed to mandating its use. In their view, such a requirement constitutes an attempt by the secular state to force a child to undergo an intervention that may be irreconcilable with her family’s religious values and beliefs.


Similar concerns have been raised about school-based requirements for vaccination against hepatitis B: because the virus spreads primarily among sexually active people and injection-drug users, some parents argued that the vaccine should be given only to those groups rather than to all children.

Right, because nobody’s child ever went on to become sexually active before marriage, or use an injectable drug.

I am baffled by this rationale. It’s like having your doctor say, “Hey, there’s a new cancer vaccine out; it’ll pretty much make your daughter immune to the most common cause of cervical cancer. Would you like to vaccinate her?” and answering, “Oh, no thanks. She’ll never have pre-marital sex and neither will her future husband, so she won’t need it. And if she did have pre-marital sex, then the slut wouldn’t deserve to be immunized against a cancer.”

I’ve checked out some of the voices on the other side of this argument, and my bafflement remains intact. Here’s a post from an abstinence-promoting blog:

Dannah Gresh has chosen not to vaccinate her two fourteen year old [sic] daughters. She would no more vaccinate them to give them protection against a sexually transmitted disease than hand them a condom so they can have sex safely.

Don’t they realize what they’re saying? They’re saying “I will not protect my child.”

The post goes on:

The fact is that if you are being aggressive about training your daughter to live abstinent until marriage, it is a contradiction to vaccinate her against a sexually transmitted disease.

Well, yes, we wouldn’t want a potentially life-saving act to contradict our teachings.

I’m a recent arrival to this parenting thing, having acquired a stepson just four years ago, when he was seven. He is not blood of my blood. But he is the son of the woman I love, and I have come to love him as well. In addition, I am partially responsible for raising him and keeping him safe. I simply cannot imagine abdicating this responsibility out of a fear that, if I protect him, he might not behave the way I want him to. That is not parenting. That is judging.


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in culture, science. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to “Would you like a cancer vaccine?” “Oh, no thanks.”

  1. JBrandao says:

    I came upon your blog a couple of days ago, when trying to find some sort of portuguese ego-boost (I basically went to Google and typed “I love portugal”). Silly I know.

    Well, I just wanted to say, there are idiots everywhere. It’s the same sort of people who are against sexual education in schools (even though it is factually the strongest weapon against teen pregnancies, and sexually-transmitted diseases) because they think it actually teaches kids to have sex and promotes it. It’s also the same type of idiots who refuse to vaccinate their kids because according to them, vaccines are dangerous (even though anyone with half a brain knows otherwise).

    Anyway… keep up with the cool posts! You have a captive audience in me at least.

    • JBrandao says:

      Oh by the way… Have you visited Aveiro yet? 🙂

      • oregon expat says:

        Thanks, JBrandao! And no, I haven’t been to Aveiro yet. In fact I’ve only been up north once so far, but I did love it and want to return for more exploration. Aveiro looks like a gorgeous location…

  2. Ana_ñ says:

    I liked what you say and didn’t want to comment today, but I made the mistake of reading that abstinence-promoting blog you linked. Oh my, biased and misleading numbers again!

    About Gardasil: “The vaccine works against only four of more than one hundred strains of HPV. It does not eliminate exposure to HPV or cervical cancer completely.”

    Well, these “only four of more than one hundred” HPV types (16, 18, 6, and 11) cause the vast majority of genital HPV diseases and are found in many other lesions.

    Wikipedia: “HPV types 16 and 18 cause an estimated 70% of cervical cancers, and are responsible for most HPV-induced anal, vulvar, vaginal, and penile cancer cases. HPV types 6 and 11 cause an estimated 90% of genital warts cases.”

    I could add that HPV infection is part of normal life; it is not the result of bizarre sexual behavior.

    US CDC: “Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. Another 6 million people become newly infected each year. HPV is so common that at least 50% of sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.”

    What we want to prevent is the diseases caused by the virus, not the exposure. Epidemiology indicates that, given the characteristics of HPV, vaccinating adolescent girls and young women around peak exposure as well as pre-adolescent girls prior to exposure is a good option. We will see if it is also good idea the routine vaccination of boys.

    HPV vaccination does not promote early sex and promiscuity. This is not about sexual behavior or the age to have sex. This is about the best moment to provide protection. Like rubella, you vaccinate children because having the disease during pregnancy may harm the unborn baby.

    I would say that parenting is something entirely different.

  3. Kay says:

    Back in earlier times before AIDS, thankfully, I was a sexually active 20 yr old who had a great time, sadly those kind of days are gone forever and STDs however present were not even named then and the reason for protecting oneself was to keep from getting pregnant.

    I developed cervical cancer, Class 4 by the time it was diagnosed and went through all the barbaric treatment ministered in those days. The cancer was cured, however now in my mid-70s I continue to suffer the consequences of the treatment of the disease and as old age approaches it gets worse. If every mother could know this and understand it they would not or should not for one second deprive their child of this vaccine. What’s wrong with the free thinking women of today???

    • oregon expat says:

      The answer to that could be a master’s thesis.

      I’m sorry, Kay — it must be especially awful to have personally suffered from this disease, and now watch women denying their daughters a vaccine against it. Perhaps it will make you feel better to know that many European nations are either requiring this vaccination, or greatly encouraging it and making it easily available through school programs and general practitioners. In many nations, including Portugal, the cost of the vaccine is covered by the government. You can see a coverage chart here.

  4. Jackie Miller says:

    The parent must believe that there are no pedophiles, incestuous relatives, or date rapes possible in their child’s future.

  5. kotoba says:

    You know, these are all good points, but MY own hackles get raised when the company which manufactures the vaccine does the majority of the advertising to endorse its use. It just seems like an enormous conflict of interest and so I mistrust everything they say. In fact, it seems like the doctors are just repeating what the advertisements say and I distrust it even more. Just my own two cents. My daughter is still too young for the vaccine and I am leaning toward giving it, but I am unhappy about it.

    • oregon expat says:

      Certainly, advertising from a pharmaceutical company is always suspect. That’s why independent studies (such as the recent Australian one) are so critical — and why “studies” by researchers with direct profit motives (such as the fraudulent and now-discredited Andrew Wakefield study, which started the whole anti-vaccination movement) are so dangerous. It’s tough for a layperson to make good decisions without help…which is why the best solution is to find a doctor who does her own critical thinking, and who keeps up with recent developments. That’s probably the hardest part of all.

    • xenatuba says:

      Also well said. The conflict of interest does rear its ugly head, but do follow the independent research, and base the decision accordingly.

  6. Anthony says:

    The picture of the person you paint in this article appears to be a pretty mean person. Fortunately, not all Christians fit this picture. Unfortunately, it actually is a controversial topic. You will like this article, and you might even like the site:
    Beware, I’m pretty sure it preaches abstinence. .-)

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