Campaign 2012: Another round coming in the HPV debate?
It's too bad we have to wait until Nov. 9 for the next GOP presidential debate, because a federal advisory commission just breathed new life into the tiff over vaccinating kids to prevent sexually transmitted disease.
As you may recall, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) lit into Texas Gov. Rick Perry at a debate last month for ordering public schools to administer the human papillomavirus vaccine to pre-teen girls. Although parents could have pulled their daughters out of the program, the order triggered so much outrage that the Texas legislature stopped it from going into effect.
The Centers for Disease Control sides with Perry on this one (as does The Times' editorial board, to a degree). It has called since 2006 for the routine vaccination of 11- to 12-year-old girls for HPV. And on Tuesday, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices unanimously recommended that 11- to 12-year-old boys be routinely vaccinated for HPV as well. The committee had previously recommended only that the vaccine be made available on request to males between the ages of 9 and 26.
The objection to Perry's vaccine program came largely from parents, who argued that the state was usurping their rights, and social conservatives, who were concerned that the vaccinations would encourage premarital sex. But as with any attempt to contain a communicable disease, an effective defense depends on mass participation.
One pernicious thing about HPV is that people can carry the virus without realizing it. That's especially troubling because the virus has been linked to potentially deadly cervical, vaginal, vulval and anal cancers, in addition to causing genital warts. If there were a vaccine that prevented breast cancer or brain tumors, would parents hesitate to have their children inoculated?
Bachmann has objected broadly to school vaccination programs, and made the unsubstantiated claim in an interview that the HPV vaccine by Gardasil was potentially a "very dangerous drug." The CDC disagrees, saying there have been about 40 reports of serious side effects per every million vaccinations. There's no way to tell whether the vaccinations caused those side effects or just happened to coincide with them.
By contrast, the lethality of cervical cancer is clear. It kills about 4,000 women in this country each year.
Vaccinating boys will help guard them against HPV-related cancers that afflict gays, but statistically speaking that's not the main benefit of the shots. The main benefit, in terms of sheer numbers, would be stopping HPV from being spread by males to unvaccinated females.
Perry said he erred in not educating the public about the benefits of the vaccine before signing the order. But he defended the policy, saying the goal was to protect against cervical cancer. That seems like ample justification for vaccinating boys as well.
-- Jon Healey
Photo: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) at a debate for Republican presidential candidates in September. Credit: Win McNamee / Getty Images