Jane, You Ignorant Slut, A Vaccine Doesn’t Cause Promiscuity

Sexually transmitted disease

Sexually transmitted disease (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What if an immunization existed that made young girls become sexually active? Sounds like a horror story that I might write one day. Realistically, though, no pharmaceutical company would be interested in developing a vaccine that made young girls sexually active. Vaccines are developed to prevent disease, not to promote unwanted behaviors.

In June 2006 a vaccine for HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) was licensed. The vaccine information statement provided by the CDC has this to say about HPV:

Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. About 20 million Americans are currently infected, and about 6 million more get infected each year. HPV is usually spread through sexual contact.”

Sounds like a disease one would wish to avoid.

“Most HPV infections don’t cause any symptoms, and go away on their own. But HPV can cause cervical cancer in women. Cervical cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer deaths among women around the world. In the United States, about 12,000 women get cervical cancer every year and about 4,000 are expected to die from it.”

Cervical cancer bad, right? Minimizing the chances of getting it would be good. I mean, children are vaccinated against diseases like hepatitis B, polio, and flu. Protecting them from a virus that causes cancer should be a no-brainer.

So why did so many parents opt out of HPV vaccination when it was first introduced? And why did so many states battle to make sure it wasn’t required?

Maybe because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease aka STD and you can’t catch STD’s if you are abstinent. Abstinence education believes that “the only 100% effective protection from the physical, emotional, mental, and social consequences of sexual activity is to save all forms of sexual activity for marriage” (source: http://www.ampartnership.org/) If children are abstinent, they have no risk factors for HPV and don’t need the vaccine. Further inflaming the abstinence educators was the recommendation that HPV vaccine be given to girls age 11 and up. Obviously giving them a vaccine to prevent STD’s at that age would send a tacit message that they were expected to have sex.

Really. Like if you get a Hepatitis A vaccine you’d lick watermelons bathed in raw sewage because you’d be protected against a disease spread by infected bowel movements. Or if you have a tetanus vaccine you’d start jumping on rusty, dirt covered nails because you wouldn’t be worried about a disease spread through cuts or wounds. If the above were true, clearly immunization against HPV would encourage young girls to have casual sex with multiple partners.

In reality, giving the vaccine to children before they are sexually active gives the best bang for the buck. The vaccine only works against HPV types the person has not been exposed to.

Sexual contact = potential HPV exposure = less effective vaccine.

Simple. Give it to people who haven’t had sex and, if they wish to remain abstinent until marriage, they’ll be protected then. You know, in case their spouse carries the HPV virus.

Unfortunately logic didn’t stop the outcry that allowing a child to have the vaccine gave approval for the recipient to have sexual activity and lulled the (now) sexually active child into believing they were impervious to STD’s.  Parents, legislators, and religious leaders all loudly railed against this vaccine.

Recently a three year study published in Pediatrics journal concluded that girls who received the HPV vaccine showed no increase in pregnancy rates, STD rates, or contraceptive use when compared to girls who didn’t receive the HPV vaccine. In other words, vaccination did not turn the girls into sluts. Instead it protected them from infections with HPV types 16 and 18, the cause of  approximately 70 percent of cervical and anal cancers.

And, as the years go by and research continues, there should come a time where  there is a clear difference in cervical cancer rates between those vaccinated with, and those who didn’t get, the HPV vaccine.  When that time comes, I think it will be damn hard to explain to your child that you didn’t protect them against a deadly disease because you misinterpreted cancer prevention as an assault on your child’s virtue.