23.2.07

Guard Us From Those Who Would Save Us


I always find it mildly amusing that as Americans, we have nothing better to do with ourselves than find things to be afraid of. It is a seductive proposition, or maybe simply a Darwinian prerogative, that we look for the competitive edge in survival. We want to be the person to know that mixing pop rocks and Coca-Cola kills you (for all my lazy readers, there's no truth to that tale), or that Tom Cruise has insider information on how to treat clinical depression.

The truth is, I really want to watch these misled celebrities or extremist hippie activists and laugh at them like I would laugh at bad karaoke or Britney Spears's new buzz cut. I want to enjoy with delicious satisfaction their ignorance and idiocy, but I can't. They aren't messing with Matt Lauer or Mickey from Life Cereal or dihydrogen monoxide. They're messing with millions of Americans who just want to protect their families.

I wasn't scared before, but I'm terrified now that people like Barbara Loe Fisher are allowed to get on national television and suggest that vaccines can cause learning deficiencies and may be responsible for a decreasing national trend in young people's IQ levels.

Everything really stems from the age-old debate: When are children old enough to learn about sex? And if we teach them about it, or let them read books with the word "scrotum" in them, will it mean they are at risk to do more than play doctor behind the bleachers?

The HPV vaccine and a consequent gubernatorial mandate in Texas (and possible mandates in other states) has fueled some parents' concerns that giving their children a vaccine for a sexually transmitted infection will make children and young adults ::gasp!:: think about the fact that they may have sex one day--or ::SHOCK!:: lose their virginity before marriage.

And angry, ignorant parents with scaremongering sound bites like "we don't know the long-term effects of the vaccine," or "why should the state be making decisions about my child's health" have forced the very public demise of Merck's lobbying campaign to have state legislatures require the vaccine in 11 and 12 year-old girls.

The area between protecting the public interest and protecting human rights is sometimes blurred in the case of public health. Just ask Mary Mallon, who was imprisoned on an island for years because she was a healthy carrier of typhoid.

That's why vaccine mandates exist. They exist because if you want to protect kindergartners from highly contagious diseases that can kill or irreparably harm them (smallpox, polio, measles, whooping cough), you make it difficult for parents to opt their babies out.

There will always be the parents who fear vaccines will make their children autistic or cause cancer, or multiple sclerosis. These are dreadful diseases, but there hasn't been any definitive proof that vaccines cause any of these problems. In fact, vaccines are being used today to help treat cancer and it's possible new disease targets like Alzheimer's and diabetes are also on the horizon.

Autism is likely to due to several factors--among them a genetic predisposition (as may be the case in Rhett's syndrome), environmental exposure (although not to thermisol--the medium vaccines used to be delivered in as study upon study upon study has shown), or something else. But, contrary to what some devastated parents might think, there has been no evidence that cases of the disease are rising.

In a few years, thanks to recent recent CDC findings establishing a baseline prevalence, we may be able to determine a trend. I wouldn't be surprised if there are more cases now than ever, but that's also a common effect of raising awareness, increasing childhood testing, and expanding the definition of the spectrum of disorders that are conglomerately known as autism.

Yet despite the facts, there are parents still scared enough, still desperate to edge out the rest of the normally distributed crowd, that they will believe anything to the detriment and possible death of their own offspring.

So, here lies Gardasil. A vaccine that promises to prevent some of the most common causes of cervical cancer, and its being bullied away from saving lives.

Why is it so controversial? Cervical cancer has many origins, among them the human papillomavirus. Gardasil protects women from the most common cancer-causing strains. The thing is, HPV is so common, that if you're sexually active, it's pretty likely you've already been exposed and contracted it. Some estimates suggest that 50% of women will be exposed to at least one form of the 30 different HPV strains during their lifetime.

So, the plan is to give young girls the vaccine long before they ever become sexually active so that they will be protected when they do. And yet I didn't see nearly as many parents cry foul when hepatitis B vaccines were required for school entry.

Cervical cancer is one of few cancers that is highly treatable if not curable if caught early. Yet it is the second most common cancer affecting women.

While wonderful preventive measures such as pap smears and regular gynecological exams exist to help detect cervical cancer in its early stages, they are not infallible. In fact, women would still need regular pap smears even if they have been given the vaccine.

Anti-Gardasil parents say they don't want the state to make decisions about their child's health care. But the truth is, they wouldn't have nearly the same number of supporters if a vaccine to prevent breast cancer or diabetes was discovered.

If you're concerned your child, who's probably more interested in High School Musical than American Pie, is going to consider Gardasil carte blanche for sexual activity--maybe it's time you took a sex-ed class.

Let me assure you, from one who took them in middle school--they are embarrassing and gross, and most of my classmates thought the opposite gender was smelly, yucky, and stupid.

The kids at the greatest risk for early sexual activity are those who don't have strong familial influence to guide them through the tough questions and tougher decisions. A mother or father so adamant about delaying sexual debut should be confident in their own parenting skills to prevent it. Or they could just claim that the Gardasil made their kid
do it.