Busting the Myth of the “Cervical Cancer” Vaccine

Adina Nack, author of Damaged Goods? Women Living with Incurable Sexually Transmitted Diseases, draws on her expertise as a sexual health researcher to discuss the impact of human papillomavirus (HPV) on men and the need for gender-neutral STD vaccines.

When I wrote my book, Damaged Goods? I focused on how living with contagious, stigmatizing, medically incurable (though highly treatable) infections transformed women’s lives – medically, socially and psychologically. I had included a discussion of the Gardasil vaccine, which had received FDA-approval and CDC recommendation for ‘routine’ use in girls and women (ages 9 to 26) back in 2006, and I had articulated some of my concerns about the delayed testing and approval process for ‘male’ Gardasil. 

A family of viruses, HPV is an ‘equal opportunity infector,’ so why have HPV vaccines not been equally accessible for men as well as women? In a recent interview on Huffington Post, several blog posts of my own, and my new feature article, “Why Men’s Health Is a Feminist Issue” (Ms. Magazine, Winter 2010), I investigate the substantial public health costs that result from HPV vaccines, such as Gardasil, not having been originally developed, tested and approved as gender-neutral vaccines.

The narrow and inaccurate marketing of Gardasil as a female-only, “cervical cancer” vaccine has distracted us from public discourse about this family of sexually transmitted viruses that are not only a U.S. epidemic but also a global pandemic. In the U.S., HPV is estimated to affect 75% of adults and certain strains are known to cause potentially fatal oral, cervical, anal, and penile cancers. Researchers are finding that HPV-related male cancers are: on the rise, often fatal due to lack of accurate testing/screening, and, in the U.S., likely result in more combined deaths in men than in women.

Still, Gardasil— primarily branded and marketed as a cervical cancer vaccine for girls and women—remains fairly inaccessible to boys and men. The CDC recommends “routine” Gardasil vaccination for females ages 9-26 for the prevention of cervical cancer and other HPV diseases. But, last October, after the FDA approved Gardasil solely for the prevention of genital warts in boys/men, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which makes recommendations for the routine administration of vaccines, voted for a lesser recommendation of “permissive” use in males that is likely to keep the vaccine less affordable for male patients.

Last month, the makers of Gardasil released a study which showed the vaccine to be effective at preventing anal precancers in men. This new evidence, which supports the case for a male vaccination schedule, was presented on February 24 at a meeting of the CDC’s ACIP. As evidence mounts that HPV vaccines (e.g., Gardasil and Cervarix) may prevent a range of serious HPV-related male cancers—including types of oral cancer, which are on the rise—I will be watching to see if the FDA reevaluates its original narrow approval of ‘male’ Gardasil (only for the prevention of genital), which could shape future CDC/ACIP vaccination recommendations.

As a medical sociologist, I am neither pro- nor anti-vaccine, but I do support:

(1) equal access to vaccines

(2) medical studies of vaccines that reveal full ranges of potential health benefits and costs

(3) and a HPV public health campaign that fully educates about the range of treatable and serious health consequences for boys and girls, men and women.

Even the most successful vaccine is not 100% effective, so it is imperative that we expand the discussion of HPV prevention beyond vaccination. Whether or not you are pro- or anti-Gardasil, we all have much to gain from de-stigmatizing STDs and from making comprehensive HPV education more accessible. 

This post was inspired by Nack’s posts on Girlw/Pen.

Talking to women scientists about women in science

As part of Women’s History Month, Temple University Press author Sandra Hanson  visited the laboratory, Fermilab, to talk with women scientists. She shared her thoughts in this blog entry.

A few days ago I visited Fermilab in Chicago. Fermi representatives had invited me to give a talk during national women’s history month since my work as a sociologist focuses on women in science. Some of the folks at the lab were familiar with my research on gender, race, and science recently published in Swimming against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education.

Swimming Against the Tide

This is a very historic and distinguished laboratory. Much of what we know about matter and energy and even how the universe began was discovered over the last four decades at Fermilab, a national laboratory funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy.

As a sociologist, I seldom get the opportunity to meet laboratory scientists (even though I spend much of my time studying science occupations). The highlight of the visit was a lunch with 11 women who had degrees and fields of experience in areas involving physics, engineering, chemistry, and technology. These women were doing incredible things in an environment that has historically been reserved for males and which still has many vestiges of a male culture.

It is the success of women like this that will pave the way for the large number of girls that my research (and that of others) reveals to have considerable science interest and talent. Sometimes the gendered aspect of science education and occupations is hard to see. It is a part of the “world taken for granted.”

The question and answer period following my talk to over a hundred Fermilab scientists and guests provided evidence for this phenomenon. There were more than a few in the audience who didn’t really buy into the “nurture” part of the development of talent in science.

The visit to Fermilab was a great opportunity for me to meet and talk to physical scientists working in science labs. It also reminded me that sociologists have to be able to talk about their research methods and findings to all kinds of audiences (not just sociologists and social scientists).

If we can talk about issues involving social structures like race, gender, and social class (and how they impact our lives) in a meaningful way to all kinds of audiences, we will become better sociologists.

Jimmy Heath at Temple University

Jimmy Heath, author of I Walked with Giants performed at Temple University’s Paley Library on Friday, February 19th. Interviewed by WRTI’s Bob Perkins, he talked about his life and music. He also took time to answer questions from the audience and sign books. Below are some images (courtesy of ‘Thaddeus Govan, Jr.) from this event.

Temple University also featured coverage about Heath’s book and visit on their site: http://www.temple.edu/newsroom/2009_2010/02/stories/Jimmy_heath.htm.

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