Press coverage of two new cervical cancer vaccines has focused largely on the latest wrinkle in the so-called culture wars – whether providing the vaccines to prepubescent girls will encourage them to have sex given that the vaccines protect against a skin-to-skin contact disease that is primarily transmitted through sexual activity and can cause cervical cancer. What should not be lost in this debate is who gets cervical cancer and what can be done to safeguard the health of those most at risk.
Merck and GlaxoSmithKline recently announced two vaccines that show nearly 100 percent efficacy in protecting women against the two most dangerous strains of HPV (human papilloma virus), which together cause 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. This medical breakthrough could end up being the most important advance in women’s health in the past century – so significant that it has even been compared to the Holy Grail.
The vaccines are viewed as a sure way to prevent future deaths from cervical cancer, the second most prevalent cancer killer in women worldwide. Cervical cancer strikes close to 14,000 American women a year and causes nearly 4,000 deaths annually in the U.S. Half a million new cases arise each year worldwide and by the year 2050, experts predict that deaths from cervical cancer globally may jump to a million a year.
Despite the inarguable benefits, some social conservatives have raised concerns about administering an HPV vaccine to young women. The vaccines, they assert, may encourage promiscuity and pre-marital sex – a claim for which there is no evidence.
Nevertheless, Tony Perkins, President of Family Research Council, says he would refuse to inoculate his own daughter. “Our concern is that this vaccine will be marketed to a segment of the population that should be getting a message about abstinence. It sends the wrong message.” But denying women access to these vaccines would ultimately send an even more harmful message: that the lives of women of color do not matter.
The vaccines hold particular promise for women of color and low-income women in our country, who suffer the most from cervical cancer in the U.S. Women of color tend to miss routine gynecological visits because they lack health insurance and cannot afford the high costs of Pap smears, the most important cervical cancer screening tool. Not even half of women of color have received recent screenings for cervical cancer.
While cervical cancer rates have declined for the general population in the U.S. due to effective screening measures, they are climbing for women of color. Latinas have the second highest rate of cervical cancer – double the incidence rate for non-Latina whites. Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are also hit hard. For instance, in California, cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer among Laotian American women and the second most common for Cambodian American women. Vietnamese American women have the highest rate of cervical cancer for any racial or ethnic group in the country.
Without access to vital preventative health measures like Pap smears, women of color often do not catch pre-cancerous markers early enough for successful treatment. As a result, minority women experience a disproportionate number of deaths compared to their white counterparts. The African American mortality rate for cervical cancer continues to be more than double that of whites and Latinas, and Native Americans have death rates above the national average.
Health advocates are recommending that the new vaccine, once approved by the FDA, be part of routine school vaccinations that teenagers, especially girls, receive before they reach puberty and become sexually active. So far, studies show that vaccine-induced immune responses are higher among young adolescents as compared to young adult women. Advocates are therefore encouraging the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which is responsible for creating guidelines for the distribution of vaccines, to add the cervical cancer vaccines to a list of recommended immunizations for the nation.
Vaccination campaigns are seen as one of the premier accomplishments of our health care system. Cervical cancer could join other deadly diseases like polio, measles and smallpox that have all but been eliminated in the U.S. But in order for that to happen, we must find ways to address the practical hurdles young women will face in obtaining the vaccines. It is estimated that the price of the vaccines could be approximately $200 per three-shot series. That is a significant cost for families without insurance coverage for the vaccines. A spot on ACIP’s list would most likely encourage public funding of the vaccines – a necessary measure if we are to ensure that all women are protected from this now-preventable disease. Offering universal access would be a vital step in improving a health care system that historically marginalizes communities of color.
Merck and GlaxoSmithKline will be seeking FDA approval in the upcoming year for their separate vaccines. The new vaccines offer a unique chance for our country to safeguard the health of all women, regardless of race or class. Before conservatives distract the public’s attention with unfounded, fear-based objections, progressives must focus the debate on the real question at hand: As a nation, will we take the opportunity to prevent thousands of needless deaths from cancer? Clearly, our answer must be yes.
Rhian Kohashi O’Rourke is a Research Associate for the Domestic Policy Department at the Center for American Progress. Jessica Arons is the Legal Policy Associate for the Women’s Health Project and the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
 Although HPV is frequently transmitted through sexual activity, it can also be spread through non-sexual skin-to-skin contact because the virus lives in skin cells.