The New York Times reported that Merck & Co., producer of the human papillomavirus vaccine, is calling off its campaign to push politicians to make the vaccination mandatory for all schoolgirls. Since HPV causes 70 percent of all cervical cancer, which kills 4,000 women annually, and the vaccine is the first to prevent cancer of any kind, it has been widely hailed as a wondrous discovery.
But when it comes to anything involving girls and sex in our culture there's always a force of insanity in the guise of moral concern.
Conservative forces like the Family Research Council decided that mandating the vaccine is as good as sending our nation's girls into a "Girls Gone Wild" audition with their tiny pocket-Ts bulging with lubricant. As we've noted before, it's asinine logic to assume that a vaccine should make girls more or less promiscuous. (Katha Pollitt nailed the absurdity of the debate: "There is some young girl, and what's keeping her from having sex now is thinking, 'I could get cancer in thirty years if I have sex with my boyfriend now.'")
But the flames fanned by the peanut-crunching moralists have made their mark. Since Merck had donated campaign funds to politicians like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who announced the state of Texas would make the vaccine mandatory for all girls entering sixth grade three weeks ago, discussions of Big Pharma influence were getting in the way of public health decision making. Now even the supporters of the mandatory vaccine are expressing relief that Merck is cooling its guns and pulling back from its push to get states to adopt the HPV vaccine. (To date, 20 states are considering such bills.)
At the center of the hesitancy is the idea of the state forcing parents to do something to their little girls. But it's not the only instance of our public health policy trying to prevent diseases associated with adult behavior by inoculating children. Ironically, I had the same response when nurses pressed me to inoculate my newborn against hepatitis B -- a disease typically transmitted via dirty needles or sex. At the moment of my daughter's birth, it seemed like an offensive intervention by the state to suggest I inoculate a baby against future exposure to I.V. drug use and unprotected sex. Ultimately, however, I had a choice -- as all parents offered a "mandatory" HPV vaccine will too. No matter what the public health policies are, parents are able to opt out of all "mandatory" vaccines. So while it may be a good thing for Merck to step back and allow the wheels of public health to grind forward on their own deliberate path, I do hope the mandatory HPV vaccine won't be consigned to the scrap heap of herstory.
A "mandatory" vaccine requires that the state offer it for free. And for a vaccine that requires three visits to the doctor and costs about $400, it may be one new expense that families feel they can't afford. Ultimately, our daughters will pay the price.