HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Sex, Disease and Zealots

Imagine a potion that will save the lives of thousands of women. This potion has no side effects, and protects against a virus that is endemic throughout the world.

Who opposes this medical advance? Pick one.

1) Luddites who prefer to let nature -- however deadly -- take its course;

2) misogynists who want women to suffer, and die, from preventable diseases; or

3) zealots enamored and enthralled with and dedicated to virginity.

The cults probably overlap, but in this instance, for this advance, the virginity-zealots win.

The virginity-zealots staunchly oppose a medical advance that most women (and the men who care about them) are cheering: a vaccine that protects against human papillomavirus virus (HPV).

This virus is transmitted by sex, but unlike other sexually transmitted diseases (Chlamydia, herpes, AIDS), condoms offer no protection. (The virgin-zealots also oppose condoms.) The virus is endemic: In the United States, most women have been exposed and half of women ages 18&endash;22 have it.

For most women, the virus does no harm. But a small percentage of women will develop cervical cancer.

In the West, cervical cancer can be treated if detected early enough, and the Pap smear does just that. It is an annual ritual for women fortunate enough to have regular health care. Widespread Pap testing has dramatically reduced -- but not eliminated -- the mortality from cervical cancer. Each year 10,000 women in the United States get the cancer; 3,700 die from it.

In the developing world, where Pap smears are not widespread, cervical cancer kills 233,000 women annually.

The good news is that the Food and Drug Administration just approved a vaccine for the HPV virus. If women are vaccinated early, before they are sexually active, they are protected from getting the virus that might lead to cervical cancer when they are middle-aged. The vaccine will not protect against all the strains of the virus -- women will still need Pap smears. But the vaccine will dramatically reduce the number of cases of the disease.

But virginity-zealots see a glum consequence in the good news: premarital sex. Their thinking goes like this: If fear of disease is one incentive for virginity, then taking away that fear encourages sex. Our Barbie-soaked culture already broadcasts the excitement of sex; this vaccine adds to the lure. So, in the name of virginity, right-thinking citizens (right in both senses of the word) must block the vaccine.

Educators discount this reasoning as specious. We don't know what deters young lovers from coupling, but fear of a disease 30 years in the offing doesn't seem sufficient reason for lovers to "say no." Data, moreover, suggest that "abstinence-only" sex curricula do not deter premarital sex -- the curricula just leave the lovers vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases.

The virginity-zealots evoke an earlier, pre-scientific age. They see premarital sex, not a virus, as the wellspring of cervical cancer. They want the woman who has premarital sex (or sex with a man who contacted the virus from an infected woman) to suffer. The virus, and the subsequent cancer, will mark her lapse. This is a disease-driven Calvinism.

Ordinarily, the zealots' opposition would be inconsequential. The United States historically has sheltered, even succored a panoply of subcultures. We don't force vaccinations for polio, tetanus, diphtheria, measles or chicken pox on people who are opposed on religious grounds. We wouldn't force HPV vaccinations.

But this is an era of religious fervor, when zealots are pushing their worldviews onto the body politick. For the HPV vaccine to be effective, the United States government must support its dissemination. A cadre of right-thinkers wants to block that dissemination, both here and abroad.

If they succeed, the cervical cancer deaths will not mark divine wrath; they'll mark human cruelty.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 15, 2006

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