HPV: Scandal, Payoffs, Promiscuity…and Cancer?

When What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

NorthWest Wing | Alaina Rudnick | March 4, 2016

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Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the cause of one of the most fatal diseases despite being one of the least well known. HPV can cause cervical cancer, the second most fatal cancer for women in the US.

How HPV Cancer Affects Us, Worldwide | Source: D. M. Parkin, MD, Wikipedia
How HPV Cancer Affects Us, Worldwide | Source: D. M. Parkin, MD

HPV isn’t just a women’s issue though: it’s linked to anal, vulvar, and penile cancers. Lessening the terror of the disease is the existence of a vaccine, Gardasil, which is manufactured by pharm giant Merck. Unfortunately, the HPV vaccine has become emblematic of so much more than HPV in the public forum.

As a nation, we possess a piece of the cure for cancer, and yet less than 40% of girls received the three doses needed for the vaccine to be effective. Right now, only 2 states, Virginia and Rhode ISland (and DC) require the vaccine to attend school.

“…why haven’t we, as a nation, provided it to our children?”

We possess part of the answer to an important question, so why haven’t we, as a nation, provided it to our children?

The answer lies in Gardasil’s relation to sex among minors, allegations of cronyism, and the ever-present arguments over autonomy. When the vaccine came out in 2006 it was recommended for girls aged 11-12, but the very mention that their princesses could one day need protection from an STI was, apparently, too much for some parents. Others believed that Gardasil could foster an inflated sense of teen immortality, triggering a spike in risky sexual activity.

Explaining away these fears and suspicions, the CDC and National Center for Biotechnological Information have published studies that prove the safety of the drug, and have quieted the fears of sexually risky behavior.

With public opinion divided, the federal government waited to institute laws requiring vaccination, leaving it to the States. In 2007 Governor Rick Perry (R) of Texas passed an executive order to requiring vaccinations—fellow GOP members were astounded, and rightfully so. This was far off the trend in his state, and seemingly his own past values. With the progression of time, however, his motivations would be revealed: Perry’s chief of staff, Mike Toomey, was also a Merck lobbyist.

In the space of his 2012 presidential bid Perry countered critique by Michele Bachmann that he had been bought by Merck for $5,000: “I raise about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.” The problem arises because Perry wasn’t bought by a measly $5,000, but much more. Perry was bought by years of campaign contributions covered by Citizen’s United, as well as many other exchanges not qualifying as contributory payments. In his gubernatorial races in 2001 and 2006, Merck directly or indirectly (through the Republican Governors Association) contributed some $406,000. What’s worse? Merck isn’t even the pharmaceutical company that has given the most to Perry.

Between the crossovers between the corporate and government spheres, and the workarounds that allow for monetary politics, the revolving door of American politics is hitting us in the collective butt. Perry’s vaccine legislation was seen in a positive light by some observers for the effect it could have had on public health, however it was ultimately overturned by the legislature in place of something that did represent the population and not the corporation. While the outcome didn’t cause harm, that doesn’t meant that corporations and cohesive action will guide the way in the future. We must create and rely upon a system to more closely monitor the ways in which campaigns and private donations influence the American political system, and who we let enter it.

“Sex, drugs, and politics have all played a role in denying a generation of the new advances in life-saving care.”

Sex, drugs, and politics have all played a role in denying a generation of the new advances in life-saving care. One of the only states to sponsor the implementation of mandatory vaccination laws did so ostensibly for all the wrong reasons. The legislation has become tied up in all imaginable debates in American culture, while the number of deaths from cancer continually increase.