Thursday, May 19, 2005

Abstinence Makes the Wallet Grow Fatter: HPV and the FRC

You can real the real thing here, in Katha Pollitt’s article in the current The Nation. Or continue on for my derivative version.

Most people would welcome the news that promising new vaccines are on the horizon for the most common of STD’s. You’d be even more excited if I told you that this STD contributes to cervical cancer and preventing it would save approximately 4000 lives each year. That is, unless you were a Right Wing Fundamentalist. It seems that the “pro-life” crowd is a bit uneasy. Let me explain.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a common infection that affects skin and mucous membranes. It is the most common STD. Approximately 20 million people are estimated to carry it. There are about 100 types and about one third of these are associated with sexually transmitted genital infections. Most are harmless. Most people with HPV will be asymptomatic. HPV is transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual. Transmission is usually from vaginal, oral, or anal sexual contact, and can occur whether or not warts or other symptoms are present.

It is generally accepted that HPV is responsible for at least 70 percent of cases of cervical cancer. However, large studies have found that HPV is present in more than 93 percent of cervical cancer tumors. HPV appears to be necessary, but not sufficient, to the development of cervical cancer. Besides HPV type, researchers believe there are several cofactors that may contribute to the development of cervical cancer. These may include smoking, HIV infection, diet, hormonal factors, and the presence of other sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia and/or herpes simplex virus 2.

It is estimated that in 2004 there will be about 10,520 new cases of invasive cervical cancer in the United States, which will result in about 3,900 deaths. Worldwide, about 500,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Certain types of genital HPV are also now considered to be a cause of most cancers of the vagina, vulva, anus, and penis. Although, taken together they equal nearly half the number of cases of cervical cancer in the U.S.

Both Merck and GlaxoSmithKline recently announced that they have conducted successful trials of vaccines that protect against HPV. Here’s the issue. For maximum effectiveness, people would need to be vaccinated before starting sexual activity. It would be most sensible to vaccinate girls and boys around puberty. And that has some conservatives nervous.

"Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV," says Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, a Christian lobbying group, in New Scientist, a British Magazine. "Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex," Maher claims.

On the surface, this may seem like the wrong fight, even for Right Wing Christians. However, you’d be underestimating how much they have at stake in promoting abstinence. Bottom line, FRC just doesn’t want people to have sex outside of marriage. From the FRC’s website:

Teens are greatly influenced by the messages they receive about sex in school. Unfortunately, the majority of schools teach "safe sex"-- "comprehensive" or so-called "abstinence plus" programs--believing that it's best for kids to have all the information they need about sexuality and to make their own decisions about sex.

Teens want to be taught abstinence. Nearly all (93 percent) of teenagers believe that teens should be given a strong message from society to abstain from sex until at least after high school. A 2000 poll found that 64 percent of teen girls surveyed said sexual activity is not acceptable for high-school age adolescents, even if precautions are taken to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Those who do not abstain from sex are likely to experience many negative consequences, both physical and emotional. Aside from the risk of pregnancy, teens have a high risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Each year 3 million teens--25 percent of sexually active teens--are infected with an STD. About 25 percent of all new cases of STDs occur in teenagers; two-thirds of new cases occur in young people age 15-24. Teens who engage in premarital sex are likely to experience fear about pregnancy and STDs, regret, guilt, lowered self-respect, fear of commitment, and depression.

Abstinence-until-marriage programs, on the other hand, teach young people to save sex for marriage, and their message has been very effective in changing teens' behavior. According to the Physicians Resource Council, the drop in teen birth rates during the 1990s was due not to increased contraceptive use among teens, but to sexual abstinence. This correlates with the decrease in sexual activity among unwed teens. In 1988, 51 percent of unwed girls between the ages of 15 and 19 had engaged in sexual intercourse compared to 49 percent 1995. This decrease also occurred among unwed boys, declining from 60 percent to 55 percent between 1988 and 1995.
The Physicians Resource Council is part of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.

The FRC and many other Right Wing groups have invested heavily in using HPV infection as a scare tool. Again from their website:

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common incurable STD in the United States, with as many as 24 million Americans currently infected. HPV has been linked to over 90 percent of all invasive cervical cancers, and is the number two cause of cancer deaths among women, after breast cancer. Approximately 16,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year, and 5,000 women die annually from this disease.

When condoms are used properly and consistently, which only occurs between 5 and 40 percent of the time, they still serve as ineffective barriers against STDs. Condoms, whether used correctly and consistently or not, do not prevent the spread of HPV.

Those concerned with public health should strongly encourage the only guaranteed method of conquering this public health epidemic - sexual abstinence until entering into a lifelong, monogamous marriage with an uninfected partner.

In a 1988 Time magazine article, Dr. Stephen Curry, of the New England Medical Center in Boston, commented on HPV, "This virus is rampant. If it were not for AIDS, stories about it would be on the front page of every newspaper."

Human papillomavirus differs from other STDs in its method of transmission; it is not spread from one person to another through the exchange of bodily fluids. Rather, it spreads through skin-to-skin contact. Since HPV is a regional, multicentric disease, it infects the entire genital area: the penis, scrotum, vulva and surrounding areas. Condoms do not cover the scrotum, nor most of the other areas that can be infected with the virus.

As public health organizations promote condoms, HPV infections increase, and the cost for treatment of all STDs mounts. Ten billion dollars per year is spent treating selected major STDs, other than Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Including HIV, the cost for treating STDs rises to $17 billion a year. All Americans share this expense through higher health care costs and taxes. Considering the physical and financial toll that STDs, such as cancer-causing HPV, are taking on society, we must ask why abstinence until marriage is not being taught as the only foolproof method to stop this epidemic - and why condoms are being sold as "safe sex" to unsuspecting youngsters.


Notice not only how they inflate the infection and death rates, but how they imply – though do not state – that all women with HPV are somehow at risk of getting and dying from cervical cancer. The message they’re seeking to create is: HPV cannot be prevented by condoms and it can kill you. While, we certainly do not want to understate the risks to women (and men), it’s pretty clear that without HPV to scare us with, the FRC has lost a powerful tool in their drive to stop us from having sex.

Family Values is, under Bush, on its way to becoming Big Business. In Bush’s 2005 budget proposal for FY2006, there were programs that promote abstinence before marriage, strong marriages and "loving bonds" between children and fathers. Spending in all three areas would increase under the proposal. If the budget is approved, abstinence education would get $206 million, an increase of $39 million. HHS is also requesting $1 billion to promote healthy marriage through "demonstrations, research and state programs," and an increase of $200 million for an initiative that helps unwed fathers establish stronger ties with their children.

The FRC, it turns out is among the “experts” that the Department of Health and Human Services tapped to review grant applications from 2001 to 2003 for one of the most significant federal abstinence funding streams, known as SPRANS.

It seems that given a choice between power and money on the one hand and helping to save lives on the other, the FRC isn’t so “pro-life” after all.

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10 Comments:

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