Gardasil is a good idea

What if we had a vaccine against cancer? Or even against some cancers? Wouldn’t this be a huge news story, with people everywhere clamoring for the shot? Maybe…

Or maybe, some people could find a way to turn that smile upside down. Gardasil, the new vaccine approved for prevention of certain cancer-causing strains of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), is the first widely available vaccine aimed directly at preventing cancer. (The Hepatitis B vaccine also helps prevent liver tumors, but that’s another story.) Gardasil can prevent cervical cancer, certain mouth and anal cancers, and perhaps other cancers of the naughty bits. So, who wouldn’t love that?

The Religious Right is who. You see, the infection that leads to these cancers is usually spread by sexual contact. Thats right, sex. SEX!! And sex is a big no-no for the fundies, at least outside of making babies with your opposite-sexed spouse.

But as much as I dislike fundamentalism, most of the “mainstream” fundamentalist groups have taken a more nuanced stand on Gardasil.

For school vaccination requirements, Christianity today favors an “opt-in” policy, while Focus on the Family sets a vaguer, “let the parents decide” policy. Both groups, quite wisely, recognize that the vaccine is valuable and that evangelical children are at risk for HPV. The Family Research Council also has an “opt-in” policy with the additional honesty of explaining why they do not like an “opt-out” policy. All of the groups do seem to over-emphasize potential negative arguments, however. Cost comes up as an issue–as it should with any medication. But if the vaccine prevented, say, ovarian cancer, I don’t think anyone would focus much on the price.

“The wages of sin is death”, and while most Christians do not subscribe to a literal interpretation of this idea, it does infuse the Right’s decision-making, perhaps blinding them to the benefits of this vaccine. In order for the vaccine to be effective, it must be given before the onset of sexual activity (which can even mean touching “down there”). While none of us likes to think about our kids having sex at 14, it may happen, and to punish them with cancer seems, well, excessive.

An “opt-in” policy for vaccinations is not a good approach to public health. Vaccines work by protecting people before they may be exposed, and by creating herd immunity. Everything that can be done to encourage vaccination should be. Opt-in carries an implication that the vaccine is either unimportant or of uncertain utility. Opt-out, while less negative, makes it too easy for people do put off a decision until it is too late.

As with any vaccine, safety and efficacy are important. And, as with any disease, education is an excellent public health measure. Mandatory sex education would go a long way toward preventing sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. I wonder how Focus on the Family feels about that?