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Dying for Equality

By Claire G. Bulger, None

There are currently 20 million Americans infected with the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). A sexually transmitted disease, HPV is not particularly serious in and of itself. Its danger comes from the cervical cancer it can cause in women, which has led to the introduction of a vaccine—Gardasil—that is widely prescribed for young women. Yet everyone would benefit if all children were vaccinated, males included.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that cervical cancer is the second largest cause of cancer deaths among women worldwide—a vaccine that can help to prevent the majority of cervical cancer is a remarkable achievement. But while there has been an admirable effort on the part of the medical and public health communities to ensure girls are vaccinated, their male counterparts have been overlooked.

The main argument for vaccinating both genders is simple numbers. Vaccines can only be completely effective if everyone is vaccinated, thereby eliminating the possibility of anyone catching or spreading the disease. The same logic should apply to the HPV vaccine. As the HPV vaccine is relatively new––and is not part of the standard battery of child vaccinations––it is unrealistic to expect that all females will have the vaccination any time soon. Broadening the vaccinations to include anyone at the appropriate age regardless of gender is a necessary step to reduce the spread of HPV.

While men cannot get cervical cancer from HPV, they have an obligation to take the relatively simple measure of getting a vaccine to help prevent it in women. If more men are immune to HPV, fewer women will contract it. If a vaccine for a serious disease only affecting men were discovered, women would have a reciprocal obligation to help eradicate it. The burden should be on both partners to decrease any health risks.

Though men are not at as high a risk of developing cancer from contracting HPV, getting the vaccine would still be beneficial for them. HPV may not usually be dangerous or life threatening for men, but it is still an infection—one that can cause certain types of cancers and the unfortunate side effect of genital warts. The strain of HPV that causes cervical cancer often does not produce any noticeable symptoms and cannot be easily detected in men, making the vaccine the only real way to avoid passing the disease on.

Many conservative groups have censured the vaccine, claiming it encourages promiscuity. They have especially taken issue with the young age at which the vaccine is administered, as the CDC recommends it be given to girls as young as nine years old. Yet in order for the vaccine to succeed, children must be vaccinated before they are sexually active, particularly as HPV can be spread through skin-to-skin contact and not just intercourse. It is illogical to suggest that children and young adults will be unaware of other risks of sexual activity just because they have the HPV vaccine.

The most valid criticism of the vaccine is the fear of yet undiscovered side effects. While that is always a risk with new medications and vaccines, the HPV vaccine, developed in the 1990s, has been extensively tested and found to be safe. Both the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a board appointed by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the CDC have recommended the vaccine as safe. The focus should be on eliminating the very real health problem of HPV and cervical cancer, not on the unproven and hypothetical side effects. Health officials should continue to monitor the vaccination, but all current information shows only benefits to the vaccine.

The vaccine has been criticized for being costly at $120 per dose. In order to remedy this, health officials should work to make the vaccine as cheap and accessible as possible, and more insurance companies should include it in their coverage plans. Some people also object to the time the three-part process takes. Even if it is slightly time-consuming, all of the vaccine’s benefits make the inconvenience worth it.

At least 50 percent of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives. Even if it is an imposition, men should receive the HPV vaccine in addition to women. Individuals have an obligation to help eradicate disease, even if it is only in others. The lives the HPV vaccine will save help everyone, male or female.

Claire G. Bulger ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Winthrop House.

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