A Rush to Judgment

Critics of the effort to make the HPV vaccine mandatory should not overstate their case and mix weak arguments with valid ones.

Last week was a good one for Gardasil, a new vaccine for human papillomavirus that significantly reduces the risks of cervical cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that routine vaccination against HPV be given to girls ages 11 to 26. A day later, the American Medical Women’s Association announced that girls ages 11 and 12 should receive the vaccine as part of an integrated prevention strategy.

Yet this weekend, Sigrid Fry-Revere, the director of bioethics study for the Cato Institute, wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times that conflates legitimate arguments against mandating the vaccine with less substantiated attacks on it. It’s not the first time critics of the vaccine have fallen into this trap.

Fry-Revere begins by arguing that Merck “has greatly exaggerated both the threat of a disease and the ability of a drug to prevent it.” Specifically, she takes issue with Merck’s exaggerated statistics about the rate of HPV among women 14 to 24. She then points to more statistics suggesting that the health threat from HPV is actually quite low.

What Fry-Revere does not mention, however, is the number of deaths that could be prevented by widespread vaccination against HPV. Every year in the United States almost 14,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 4,000 women die from it. Gardasil has proven completely effective against two strands of HPV that cause 70 percent of cervical cancer, so widespread vaccination could save up to 2,800 women’s lives every year.

Fry-Revere further claims that the vaccine “may well cause more harm than good.” She argues that the vaccine could cause young women to have a false sense of security, leading them to neglect regular screening for cervical cancer.

Given that most young women are unaware of the connection between HPV and cervical cancer, it seems strange to assume that they would only listen to their doctors about the need for the vaccine and not the need for regular pap smears as well.

Fry-Revere also presents unfounded worries about the dangers of this vaccine. She provides anecdotes about other vaccines that proved dangerous, but provides no reasons why those examples have specific bearing on the safety of this vaccine. Furthermore, the FDA declared Gardasil safe and effective after it was tested on close to 11,000 people and the CDC says the vaccine has no dangerous side effects.

What makes these less-than-substantiated arguments a matter of concern is that they are mixed in with legitimate issues connected with making the vaccination mandatory. Frey-Revere is right to worry about the tremendous cost of the vaccine, Merck’s involvement in the lobbying process, and the push to make the vaccination mandatory before effectively educating the public about it. But these concerns shouldn’t provide cover for other arguments that have little grounding in fact.

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