HPV Vaccine: Valuing Health over Politics
The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine has only been on the market for seven years, but already a recent study shows a 56 percent reduction in targeted HPV strains among the 2,140 vaccinated girls in the study. This is great news and all the more reason why people should know that the Affordable Care Act has made the vaccine and HPV testing available without co-pay, eliminating cost as a reason to skip this proven preventive care against serious and even life-threatening diseases.
Researchers estimate that 75–80 percent of men and women will have HPV at some point during their lifetimes. Although the majority of infected people do not develop any symptoms, they can still transmit the disease to others. Many with HPV develop genital warts, cervical cancer, and a variety of other cancers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that because HPV is so common and since we cannot tell who will develop the most serious health conditions from the virus, it is best to vaccinate all kids. The vaccine is recommended for girls ages 11–26 and boys ages 11–21. The best age to receive the vaccine for either boys or girls is 11 or 12.
Given the health risk of HPV exposure, it is surprising that only 30 percent of American girls are currently vaccinated with a full three-dose course. In contrast, Denmark, Britain, and Rwanda vaccinate at least 80 percent of their girls and boys. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, cost is no longer a factor for not getting the vaccine, so why are so many children still at risk of contracting HPV?
Despite its clear benefits, the HPV vaccination program wasn’t implemented without challenge. Many of us remember that during the 2011 Republican presidential primary debates, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) argued that young girls not yet engaging in sexual intercourse would be encouraged to do so when given the HPV vaccine. She also said that the vaccine itself caused other “dangerous side effects” and “mental retardation,” despite repeated testing of the vaccine’s safety.
We must clear this misconception now, rid the HPV vaccine of any lingering stigma, and save girls’ lives. Advancing public health should never become a political fight. Ensuring that all children receive the HPV vaccination means eliminating a generation of cervical and other cancers, saving thousands of lives. The CDC estimates that there are 12,000 cases of cervical cancer, resulting in 4,000 deaths, in the United States every year. If the vaccine continues to be distributed at its current rate and dosage, it would prevent 45,000 girls currently 13 years old or younger from getting cervical cancer and 14,000 from dying of cervical cancer.
Like in the ongoing Texas abortion debate, this is not about ideology; it is about giving everyone a healthy and full life. In order to do that, we must support all aspects of women’s health, including reproductive health. By engaging with women to ensure that they have all of the resources to care for themselves, we also bring benefits to their families and their surrounding communities that will prosper from their work, thoughts, and interactions.
This post was written by AAUW Public Policy Intern Katie Cole.