Sunday, June 23, 2013

Vaccines Work: Gee, Whoda Thunk?

It was a banner week for the practice of vaccination, as the newest kid on the vaccine block, the Human Papilloma Vaccine whose brand name is Gardasil, was shown to have cut the rate of infection with the most dangerous HPV strains in half since its introduction in 2006. This will almost certainly mean that the number of women who will develop cervical cancer (to which HPV is causally linked) will decrease by a significant amount over the coming decades. This is great news, a true triumph of public health.

This shouldn't be a surprise.

What should be eye-opening is that only about one-third of young women in the US actually receive Gardisil so its benefits are limited. Why is there such a low vaccination rate? There is more than one specific reason, but all the grievances are based on confusion, ignorance, and, to a great extent, the politics of the far right. For instance, in September of 2011 in a prelude to the Republican presidential primaries when various and sundry politicians were jockeying for pole position, then front-runner Governor Rick Perry of Texas found himself on the defensive for his executive order mandating the Gardisil vaccine be distributed to all girls in his state. (Parents could opt out.) During primary debates, Perry had to defend this entirely reasonable and indeed laudable policy from the likes of Michele Bachmann, who darkly suggested--without any evidence, it turned out, though this didn't seem to faze the Congresswoman--that Gardisil caused mental retardation. Similar screeches of paranoia have been de rigueur in the insular environment of the Tea Party and its minions, and so a public health boon has not reached its potential, despite endorsements by such politically radical groups as the American Academy of Pediatrics (who, it should be noted, recommend the vaccine for boys as well).

Does the vaccine do better elsewhere? Why, yes, in fact it does. As the article notes, the vaccination rate is about 80--yes, eighty--percent in...Rwanda. Way to go, team USA.

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