Hallelujah! A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel unanimously gave the thumbs-up to the pending vaccine for common types of the human papilloma virus today, saying the drug is safe, is effective and should be approved. (Check out previous Broadsheet coverage of the issue here.) Since a whopping 80 percent of sexually active American women are estimated to have come in contact with the cervical-cancer-causing virus -- and around 4,000 women in the U.S. and 290,000 women worldwide die of cervical cancer annually -- the ability to vaccinate against the virus would be a huge boon for women's health. The manufacturer (Merck) claims that the vaccine (called Gardasil) would snuff out the strains that cause nearly 70 percent of all cervical cancers and genital warts.
But (you knew there was a but) the vaccine won't protect against all HPV strains, and it does seem to carry some risks. As the Boston Globe reported today, "the agency noted 'compelling evidence' that it is less effective for women already exposed to the virus and could worsen cervical cancer for women who already have it." And, scarily enough, "five trial participants vaccinated shortly before conception gave birth to children with birth defects." Of course, most drugs carry some degree of risk, but this is freaky stuff, and the FDA's caution and consideration here are totally merited. I'm glad it's taking these potential risks seriously.
However, I'm less enthused about the vaccine's other hiccup. "Merck says the vaccine can work on girls as young as 9 years old, and some supporters say the vaccine should be part of a list of shots pre-teen girls are required to have," ABC news reports. And if you vaccinate young women against HPV, won't they internalize the implicitly pro-sex message and run out and join these sex cults we've been hearing so much about? Physicians Consortium head Hal Wallace says the drug sends the message that "you just take this shot and you can be as sexually promiscuous as you want." ('Cause the fear of getting a difficult-to-detect, underpublicized STD is what's been stopping them. Riiight.) And some groups, like Focus on the Family, argue that parents should be able to opt out of the vaccine, since good Christian girls won't need it, anyway.
Even if you can get past the teen-sex hysteria (which these folks obviously can't, but just hypothetically), the vaccine poses problems for the abstinence-only crowd for other reasons, namely that the religious right needs HPV to anchor its "condoms don't prevent all STDs, so there should be no condoms at all" fallacy.
Of course, some right-wing Christian outrage shouldn't be enough to counteract a great report card from the FDA's scientific advisors. But, as the Globe gets points for noting, it wouldn't be the first time hysteria trumped science at the FDA: "While the FDA generally follows the advice of its outside scientific panels, there have been notable exceptions, including Plan B, the so-called 'morning-after pill.' Federal advisers endorsed selling it without a prescription to women 16 and older in December 2003, but the FDA has yet to issue a final decision."
Today's panel decision was an important benchmark in the HPV vaccine debate, but the fight ain't over yet. The FDA's final decision is expected June 8.