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What’s worse: A two second shot or cervical cancer?

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, August 12, 2008 17:32 EDT
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I hope this doesn’t come across too harshly, because I usually like Catherine Price’s blogging, but this blog post is irresponsible. She buries the most important detail, perhaps for dramatic effect or perhaps because she didn’t realize how important it was. The teaser on the front page of Salon says, “Do we need to guard against Gardasil? The controversial cervical cancer vaccine may carry serious health risks”. That when I began to get that sinking feeling, because I’ve been carefully following how the right wing noise machine is trying to discourage people from getting their daughters vaccinated—because sex should have “consequences” for women, even if the consequence is death—and I was afraid that Catherine got snagged by right wing propaganda. In fact, I have a segment for next Monday’s podcast (this week’s: is sex without condoms always a bad thing?) chronicling the success of getting the message out there to parents to refrain from protecting their daughters from HPV.

Sadly, I was somewhat right. Catherine quotes far-right wing anti-woman group Judicial Watch* on the “dangers” of the HPV vaccine, and doesn’t note that they’re a far right anti-woman group until the end. Nope, in the beginning of the post, she describes them as a public-interest group. The only “public” whose interests they care about are virulent misogynists. Believe you and me, in the crazy woman-hating arena, making sure that women still get cervical cancer for generations to come has become a big deal. I searched YouTube for “gardasil”, and all but one of the front page videos were ye ol’ angry white men screaming out conspiracy theories about it. If you’re up on the right wing code language, you should immediately realize that “Judicial Watch” is feeding the right wing belief that the courts need to be dismantled because liberal activist justices have this crazy idea that women and non-white people are citizens worthy of equal protection under the law.

But Amanda, you might say, not every right winger who indulges in conspiracy theories about birth control and vaccinations against STDs actually wants to see women die terrible deaths from botched abortions and cervical cancer. Agreed. Some of them justify their misogyny with a thick coat of paternalism and the belief that female property is precious. And they see contraception and STD protection as a plot by feminists to transfer the ownership of female bodies from fathers and husbands to the women themselves. Actually, they’re not entirely wrong there. But where we disagree is that they think women are so bone stupid that they simply can’t be trusted with the ownership of female bodies, and that the threat of STDs and unintended pregnancy is a critical part in keeping female property on the farm, where it can be safe. This belief doesn’t even make sense in reference to HPV, which you’ll probably get even if you only sleep with one man your entire life.

Judicial Watch isn’t remotely concerned about the potential of girls falling ill. They aren’t mining the other reports that VAERS puts out, because then they’d discover that there’s a history of VAERS collecting data just like the reported adverse effects of Gardasil, which is to say a bunch of anecdotal cases that are evidence mostly of patients casting around for an explanation for an unexplained illness and latching onto the vaccine. If they hadn’t gotten the vaccine, they might be blaming it on lack of sleep. In some more serious cases, people have a collection of symptoms that are debilitating but have been around without explanation for a long time, like chronic fatigue syndrome. There’s barely a correlation, much less causation. The CDC has examined VAERS data, and you can read the results here. Catherine quotes the alarming number of over 9,000 adverse reactions reported. And that does sound scary, coming from someone trying to scare you, like Judicial Watch is. However, only 6,667 were in the U.S. out of 16 million shots. That’s a complaint rate of 1 complaint in 2,400 cases. Oh, and it’s not even as bad as that sounds:

VAERS received 9,749 reports after Gardasil vaccination (6,667 were U.S. reports, 3,082 were foreign reports). Among the U.S. reports, more than 94% were reported as non-serious adverse events such as brief soreness at the injection site and headache. Less than 6% were reports of serious adverse events, about half of the average for vaccines overall.

Emphasis mine. Even if the number of adverse effects was 10 times the complaints, that means that we’re looking at 62,500-ish sore arms, which can be survived better than perhaps even your first Pap smear, and a scattershot of various different diseases that are best described as anecdotal evidence. Someone’s** lying, and they’re lying because they want you daughter to be vulnerable to HPV, because who wants to live in a world where you can be a dirty slut without the fear of dying?***

I’ll be honest—I actually expected the complaint rate attached to a diverse array of symptoms with no known cause to be much worse. I remember being a teenage girl in the very-virginal years that you’re supposed to be giving your daughter this shot. And I had more than one episode of feeling physically ill thinking about the future that lay ahead for the mysterious below the belt region. And I don’t mean a little, but more like hearing about a friend going to get a pelvic exam made me dizzy, or hearing a doctor describe how they put in Norplant made me want to lay down for awhile. I was skeptical that the vagina really was as big a hole as claimed, and the sheer amount of things that are supposed to go in and out of it—penises, speculums, even tampons, and certainly babies—made me nauseous. I’m squeamish, of course, and then you have the medicalization of women’s anatomy that makes the routine aspects of vaginal interaction seem like medical procedures. Obviously, I got over that, but to this day I can’t watch someone draw my own blood without wanting to barf. I suspect that I’m not a complete weirdo, and a lot of girls have anxiety about sexual stuff that gets mixed in with squeamishness. To make it worse, I’m sure a lot of parents have the exact same feelings when contemplating their own daughter’s sexuality. So the psychological groundwork is laid to interpret every episode of poor health in the months after the HPV vaccine. I’m somewhat surprised that the number of complaints blaming everything from autoimmune disorders to chronic fatigue on this shot haven’t been higher.

Meanwhile, there’s 10,000 cases of cervical cancer every year in the United States, and it claims 3,700 lives every year. But of course, the dead are not darling teenage virgins, and so don’t get the hysterical media attention that the sore arms out there do.

*If you want to see how far right and obsessively misogynist they are, check out their issues page. Seven projects, and one of them is just obsessively following around the woman who symbolizes, to the hard right, everything that’s gone wrong with this country since they untied women from the stove: Hillary Clinton. So we already have one name on the list of people they’d like to see die of cervical cancer.
**Judicial Watch.
***I do. Who’s with me?

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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