An experimental vaccine has proved highly effective at preventing cervical cancer in a two-year study involving more than 12,000 women, researchers reported yesterday.
The vaccine, Gardasil, is made by Merck & Company, which plans to apply for approval to the Food and Drug Administration before the end of this year and, if the vaccine is approved, to market it in 2006.
If widely used, the vaccine could save many lives. Worldwide, there are about 500,000 new cases of cervical cancer a year, and 290,000 deaths. Most of the cases and most of the deaths occur in poorer countries where women do not have regular Pap tests, which can detect cancers or precancerous cells early enough for them to be cured. In the United States, where Pap tests are common, 10,400 new cases are expected in 2005, and 3,700 deaths.
The vaccine works against viruses that belong to a group called human papillomaviruses, or HPV. Nearly every case of cervical cancer is caused by HPV. The viruses are sexually transmitted, extremely common and almost impossible to avoid. At least half the adults in the United States have been infected.
More than 30 types of HPV infect the human genital area. Only some types cause cancer; others cause genital warts. A type known as HPV-16 causes 50 percent of cervical cancers, and HPV-18 causes 20 percent. Other types cause the rest. But even the cancer-causing types are harmless in most people because their immune systems fight them off.
Religious authoritarians have fought this vaccine for many years, arguing that a vaccine that reduces risks of STDs will encourage sex. That it would save thousands of lives is irrelevant to them because, you know, sex. I think I’ve come across similar arguments against a hypothetical AIDS vaccine, and it’s the same argument that’s made against comprehensive sex education.
This is a values issue, and it’s one where conservatives lose. I’d rather save lives that argue over how many kids are having sex. It happens, and I’d rather they do so safely than otherwise. Religious authoritarians would prefer women to die of cervical cancer than make these simple vaccines available.
Let’s stand up for some simple values, like preventing thousands of deaths from cancer.