HPV vaccine debate shrouded in misinformation and gender bias

For me, conversation surrounding the Human Papillomavirus vaccine happened mostly in high school. It caused a number of giggly, hushed discussions on the girls’ end of the cafeteria table. What could have been more exciting than a uniquely feminine and adult topic of conversation? One girl would ask how badly the vaccine hurt, or how long her arm would be sore after the second dose. A more unabashed one would ask if she should wait until her last shot to sleep with her boyfriend for the first time.

The two forms of the vaccine currently on the market, Gardasil and Cervarix, consist of three intramuscular shots over the course of nine months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pediatricians told us the vaccine wouldn’t be as effective if we became sexually active before completing the vaccination process; we were forbidden from succumbing to some pimply peer’s seductive text messages for at least a couple more months.

The connection between HPV and cervical cancer is extremely important — it is the reason why we must greet the vaccine with urgency instead of hesitation. Some have labeled HPV’s association with cancer an exaggeration, like encouraging a child not to stand in front of the microwave for fear of radiation. However, the facts are difficult to dispute. Fifty percent of sexually active people have HPV and the disease causes almost all cases of cervical cancer. So, it is not an overstatement to say that if the HPV immunization becomes as widely distributed as the polio and measles vaccines are now, cervical cancer could be diminished.

Regrettably, that achievement is slipping out of reach. This is not because of risky side effects, or because the connection between HPV and cancer is intangible. The HPV vaccine’s reach is limited because to imagine a girl between the ages of nine and 13 eventually becoming sexually active in her adult life has been deemed perverted or wrong. In several debates, Republican primary candidates have attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry for issuing an executive order requiring girls entering sixth grade in Texas to be inoculated. Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann even went so far as to wildly assert that the vaccine causes mental retardation, and has continued to spread her dogma into November. But the cause for criticism was hardly necessary — it didn’t take long for the Texas legislature to override Perry’s measure. Again, not because of safety issues, but because criticism from conservative groups raised concerns that a mandate for the vaccine would encourage sexual activity at an earlier age.

But the reaction to the CDC’s recent decision to recommend the vaccine for boys has been virtually nonexistent. Not only does the boys’ shot reduce the probability of transmitting the disease to a sexual partner, it also prevents rectal cancer in men which would result from homosexual sex. Alas, no one has expressed concern for such “innocent little boys.” This muted reaction has been the most revealing. We may expect “boys to be boys,” but to consider a young girl eventually honing her sexuality is unthinkable.

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An idealized intimate relationship is dangled before a young girl by the time she hits age two. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Disney film that does not resolve in the princess finding her mate. While boys are in the yard driving battery-powered trucks and hurling footballs at one another, girls inside tend to play house and hold tea parties.

We expect young girls to mimic domestic life throughout childhood. Once they hit puberty, however, we are somehow surprised when that romantic fantasy progresses to the logical conclusion — sex.

That is why the controversy surrounding the HPV vaccine is so absurd. As much as we would like to believe that the young girls of America are chaste and innocent, 45 percent of them have had sex by high school graduation. To claim they were encouraged by a comprehensive sex education or a life-saving vaccine is just unreasonable. There are endless societal factors that have driven young girls to near-mania when it comes to romance, and to deny them the option of fulfilling their desires safely would be disgraceful.

The bottom line is this: This vaccine is essentially a safeguard against several forms of cancer. We walk and run miles for the cure, we pester friends asking for donations, there are entire months dedicated to raising awareness. To allow the 11,000 women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year to continue suffering for the sake of outdated, puritanical values would be tremendously shameful.

emEmma-Jean Weinstein is a junior visual and media arts major. Weinstein can be reached at emma_jean_weinstein@emerson.edu/em

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