Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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BY GAIL BESSERegister Correspondent
AUSTIN, Texas — How could a woman who has
had relations only with her monogamous husband get cervical cancer, a disease
that develops from a sexually transmitted virus?
Her husband was a widow whose first wife died of the
That case underscores the need for education about
sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), according to Dr. Gary Rose of the
Texas-based Medical Institute for Sexual Health.
He and other abstinence advocates welcome the first
cervical cancer vaccine as both a medical breakthrough and a teachable moment.
“Many women don’t realize the Pap test screens for
cervical cancer caused by human papilloma viruses (HPVs),” Rose said, or that genital HPVs
can be spread by skin-to-skin contact without sexual intercourse.
On June 8, the Food and Drug Administration gave
pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. approval for Gardasil,
a vaccine intended to prevent 70% of the HPV infections that lead to cancer. Gardasil also targets strains that produce genital warts.
Nearly 4,000 deaths from cervical cancer occurred in
the United States
in 2003, and AIDS claimed 14,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control
“This shows the need for more abstinence education,”
said John Margand, executive director of Healthy
Respect, a New York City
pro-life group. “The vaccine addresses a certain percentage of one disease, but
there are 25 STDs now. You won’t find hostility to this among abstinence
providers, but it’s not a panacea either.”
Pro-family groups such as the Family Research Council
have been misrepresented by hostile media reports suggesting they opposed the
vaccine, policy analyst Moira Gaul said.
In fact, several such groups have spoken in favor of
the vaccine’s development and availability. But they did raise concerns about
whether it would abet promiscuity if its limitations were overlooked, and about
parents having a say in children’s immunization.
Gardasil was approved for girls and women from ages 9 (before
the onset of sexual activity) to 26.
“It’s not an either-or situation. STDs are serious
business,” Margand said. “Unfortunately, children as
early as fifth grade are exposed. Parents are the primary educators. They need
to be brought into the conversation quickly, early and often. To do nothing is
Needed for School?
Rose, of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health,
added, “The vaccine is a very positive step, as many people don’t have access
to Pap tests.”
Cervical cancer causes 280,000 deaths worldwide
“We’d encourage drug companies to develop vaccines
for all STDs, but abstinence is still best,” Rose said. “The vaccine doesn’t
affect the message. Abstinence is what you do because of who you are, because
you think it’s the right thing to do, and not out of fear.”
That message is evidently getting across to some,
according to data just released by the National Center
for Health Statistics, which showed a 23% drop for older teenage boys in sexual
intercourse from 1988 to 2002.
With the U.S. market now open, Merck is
seeking Gardasil’s approval in 50 other countries. On
June 29, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will consider
whether to recommend this immunization be added to the universal vaccine list.
If so, states can decide whether to make it a
prerequisite for school enrollment.
Focus on the Family issued a statement supporting the
availability of HPV vaccines but opposing their requirement. The statement
advised parents: “Seize this moment to talk with your child about your family’s
values and God’s plan for sexuality.”
The proliferation of STDs highlights the problem of
promiscuity, noted Dr. Kathleen Raviele,
vice-president of the Catholic Medical Association, which is formulating a
vaccine policy statement.
“Parents should have a choice,” she said. “And to
reduce the incidence of HPV in the general population, you’d also have to
vaccinate boys. My concern would be that women might not think they have to
continue Pap tests. And would it be effective 20 years from now?”
If states make vaccination mandatory, officials and
insurers must then decide who pays the $360 per person cost.
“The reason [pharmaceutical
companies] want this on the ‘mandatory’ list of vaccines is because
that’s the only way that they can make a significant amount of money off the
vaccine,” charged Catholic moral theologian Pia de Solenni. “Once it’s ‘mandatory,’
then it’s also eligible for government funding.”
De Solenni is founder of Diotima, a new women’s project aimed at authentic
femininity. She formerly worked with the Family Research Council, where she met
with officials from both Merck and GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals,
which is developing a similar vaccine.
Financial analysts estimate Gardasil
could produce $2.6 billion a year for Merck, hit with big losses from having to
withdraw its arthritis drug Vioxx.
Other concerns with the vaccine were that people
might think it offers more protection than it does, and the unanswered question
of booster shots, according to de Solenni.
Merck spokeswoman Kelley Dougherty said data now show
Gardasil’s “effectiveness does not wane after five
years,” but the company will track one test group for a lifetime.
“We stress the need for women to
continue with regular Pap tests,” she said, and to clearly explain the
vaccine’s limitations. In April the company launched “Tell Someone,” an
advertising campaign to increase awareness of cervical cancer.
What’s really needed in the long run is respect for
human sexuality, de Solenni concluded.
“Having sex isn’t about ‘protecting’ one’s self. It’s
fundamentally about forming an indissoluble union where our vulnerabilities are
accepted — it’s about giving one’s self.”
Gail Besse is based in
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