Sunday, April 17, 2005

Chastity and Vaccinations

There are topics which make me cry, and this is one of them. Did you know that religion and tradition may require women to die from cervical cancer? Some strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV) are suspected as being the cause of most cervical cancers. These strains are transmitted sexually, though nonsexual transmission is also possible.

The way to fight HPV and cervical cancer is through vaccination, preferably before the onset of sexual activity. New vaccines are being developed and look promising. The snag is that many groups will not wish to see young girls vaccinated against a disease that may be sexually transmitted:

In the US, for instance, religious groups are gearing up to oppose vaccination, despite a survey showing 80 per cent of parents favour vaccinating their daughters. "Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV," says Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian lobby group that has made much of the fact that, because it can spread by skin contact, condoms are not as effective against HPV as they are against other viruses such as HIV.

"Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex," Maher claims, though it is arguable how many young women have even heard of the virus.

Tear your clothes and scatter ashes on your head. It is estimated that half of all sexually active women between eighteen and twenty-two in the U.S. are infected* Most of those infected will not get cervical cancer but some probably will. Thanks to regular screenings, cervical cancer can be caught early enough for it to be treated.

Things are much gloomier in the developing world where regular screenings for anything are a pipe-dream. Eighty percent of cervical cancer deaths happen in these countries, yet social and religious taboos make it extremely unlikely that young girls would be vaccinated:

But some problems have already surfaced. India is planning to do its own clinical trials, but will not test the vaccine in young girls. "This is not possible until around the age of marriage in India," Ganguly says.

Once licensed, the vaccine should be given to younger girls, he says. "But people will say 'My girl is very virtuous, why vaccinate?' It will be a real challenge, not like other vaccines."

The most feasible solution would be to vaccinate all young boys instead. There is no similar worry about their chastity and the value of a son is not reduced if he is shown to have been sexually active. Also, this would provide some protection for any virtuous woman whose husband gives her the HPV. And for rape victims.

Sigh. It is so hard for me to understand why social conservatives view extra-marital sex as worse than death. This is not the first example of similar thinking; the Catholic church's attitude towards condoms has caused much suffering in the AIDS-infested countries of Africa. I guess it is holier to kill than to fornicate.
*And probably some fairly similar number of sexually active young men. But so far it seems that the consequences for men are not as serious.
Via Atrios who got it from coldfury.