News Analysis: HPV Vaccine Meets Resistance from Religious Right

With AIM Healthcare Foundation reporting that a large number of adult performers are infected with the human papilloma virus (HPV), recent developments in Texas may have important consequences for the industry.

On Feb. 2, Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered that all schoolgirls in his state be vaccinated with a new anti-HPV vaccine, Gardasil, as part of the health regimen mandated for public school children. What he didn't count on was Religious Right groups across the nation vehemently condemning the order and calling for it to be rescinded.

"The Governor's order forces little girls to be shot with a sex virus vaccine," said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. "While we support the vaccine itself, a government mandate that little girls must be shot with it well before they're sexually active, with the likely consequence they would have to get another expensive booster before they're sexually active, is an outrageous assault on girls and their parents."

Wright's statement is, to say the least, disingenuous. In order to be fully effective, the vaccine must be administered before the girl has contracted HPV, which is usually transmitted during sexual intercourse.

Merck Pharmaceuticals has stated that its vaccine is 100% effective against four strains of HPV (two of which together cause 70% of cervical cancer cases and two of which cause 90% of genital warts) if administered to young girls (9-15). The vaccine is 90% effective for girls/women 16-26 who may already have indulged in intercourse. Even in women who have contracted one or more of the four strains targeted by Gardasil, it can protect against infection from the non-contracted strains. Other companies are working on similar vaccines which target other HPV strains.

But Wright's disingenuousness is even deeper than it might appear from her statements. Wright is one of several dozen Religious Right leaders who for years have warned adolescent girls that one of the most important reasons for avoiding pre-marital sexual intercourse is that they could in the process contract HPV, even if their partners use condoms. (Condoms are in fact somewhat protective against HPV.)

But now, with the arrival of anti-HPV vaccines which are most effective if administered before the girl has become sexually active, that "reason" to abstain from sex is gone – or would be if the girl is vaccinated early enough. So for Wright to attempt to prevent those girls who would derive the most benefit from the vaccine from obtaining it through a school vaccination program can only be interpreted as a callous disregard for the health of the women these girls will grow up to become.

And Wright is hardly alone in her condemnation of this life-saving program.

"Experts with the American Academy of Pediatrics aren't recommending mandatory HPV vaccination," claimed Vision America president Rick Scarborough. "They believe too little is known about the vaccine's effectiveness or possible side effects."

But that, of course, isn't Scarborough's real objection:

"Nor we can not overlook the moral dimension," Scarborough cautioned, ungrammatically, in a press release. "The governor's action seems to signify that God's moral law regarding sex outside of marriage can be transgressed without consequence."

Family Research Council, which sponsored last fall's Values Voter Summit, claimed in its e-letter today that Texas had "erupted in protest," and couched its opposition to the vaccine as a parents-rights issue.

"[T]he issue at hand is not whether to make the drug available to young women — few would argue otherwise — but whether or not it should be a requirement of school attendance for schoolgirls and who should literally call the shots," wrote FRC president Tony Perkins. "Parents should not have to 'opt-out'; rather they should be able to 'opt-in' their daughters for the vaccination."

This stance puts Perkins in bed with several other religious sects which oppose, for instance, blood transfusions and other life-saving treatments on the basis that their deity opposes "pollution of the body" with outside substances.

And then there are those who have already gone off the deep end, like Eagle Forum attorney Andy Schlafly, son of the organization's founder, Phyllis Schlafly.

"This vaccine is a loser," Schlafly told MSNBC host Chris Jansing on Feb. 5. "Imagine a vaccine that told young teenagers that if they took this vaccine, they would be protected against getting lung cancer, so they can go out and smoke. It's not true. It's not true of lung cancer, it hasn't been shown with this vaccine. The average age of diagnosis for cervical cancer is 48 years old. But they propose to give this vaccine to 11-year-old girls. Not even Merck says the vaccine will last nearly that long. Merck says they don't know how long the vaccine will last."

Just a couple of problems with Schlafly's statements: As already noted, the vaccine works best if given before the girl has contracted any strain of HPV, and indications are that if given early enough, the vaccine will offer life-long protection. And while Gardasil doesn't protect against all strains of HPV, it does protect against the most common ones. Even flu shots don't protect against all variations of that virus in any given year, but yearly flu vaccinations are universally recommended anyway.

Several of the groups attempted to paint Gov. Perry's order as having been unduly influenced by Merck's marketing campaign, and Wright claims that Perry "circumvented debate on this controversial matter to the financial benefit of Merck, one of his campaign contributors" – implying that Merck, which has the only anti-HPV vaccine currently on the market, bought Perry's endorsement.

There's only one legitimate conclusion that can be drawn from this widespread opposition to the life-saving vaccine: That Religious Right groups are so concerned with squelching all pre-marital sexual activity, and secondarily, despite protests to the contrary, with keeping women subservient to men, that they want to prevent the most vulnerable women – adolescent girls – from receiving medicine that will help prevent their deaths at an early age from a particularly virulent and deadly form of cancer.