How anti-vaccination hysteria is about sex, accidentally helping Big Pharma—anything but science

By Amanda Marcotte
Sunday, April 5, 2009 16:34 EDT
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It’s painful for me to write this, because I don’t like criticizing people I generally admire, but if I’m going to get on the right for sex-phobia and anti-science thinking, I have to do it for the left, too. I hinted at my frustrations in my article about the reproductive health panel at WAM, but truth told, I was banging my head against my desk in frustration when a handful of anti-vaccination types absolutely destroyed any science-based, productive conversation by making the entire discussion about how Merck only invented Gardasil because they enjoy profiting off killing people. It’s one of the most frustrating illogical habits of the left, to assume that because someone makes money at something, that action is almost surely immoral and probably actively evil. You definitely get that every time someone tries to make a scandal out of the fact that liberal and feminist bloggers have advertisements, and you get it in the anti-vaccination hysteria.

Within the course of 10 minutes worth of questions, I heard every right wing myth about the HPV vaccination repackaged as an earnest feminist concern. They didn’t test it at all! With a side dose of acting like this is the first vaccination anyone ever invented, and this is a scary new technology. Truth is, they actually put it through the standard vaccination testing and approval process, and yes, they tested it on boys, too, so that right wing meme that’s seeped into liberal thinking is also what we liberals call “problematic”. The reason it was only approved for girls initially, I suspect, is that the FDA assumed it would be mandated like most childhood vaccinations are (because it’s no different than other childhood vaccinations, except for one thing—what could that be?), and it was easier to sell it as a way to stop girls from getting cancer. That was stupid, because if they’d done both genders right up front, they could have avoided even really dwelling on the fact that HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, which could have prevented people from having “questions” they don’t have about other routine vaccinations.

Other myths that were trotted out: We don’t know enough about how it works. (The same as other vaccines.) It’s not a real contagious disease like airborne illnesses. This one made me explode, because the implication is right out of Focus On Family’s propaganda on this vaccination—the implication is that only sluts get HPV, and so you personally should have a right to opt out because you’re not a slut who gets STDs, and you resent being treated like a slut who gets STDs. I’m sure most feminists who trot this line out about how it’s not really a contagious disease would deny that there’s a bit of slut-shaming going on, but I fail to see what else it is. Anyway, they’re wrong—most of the women who nodded vigorously in the room when this was brought up probably already have had HPV, like most sexually active adults at some point in the lives, no matter how hard they try to keep their number low and respectable. We are all sluts! Truth is, most of us will have more than one partner in our lifetimes, and our partners will probably have more than one partner, so actually, HPV isn’t really different than an airborne illness at all. After all, it’s only your slutty insistence on leaving the house and engaging with other people that makes you vulnerable to airborne illnesses. You have the choice to be a shut-in.

I was disappointed to see a blogger I really admire engage some of these same myths about Gardasil, implying that the slickness of the Merck ads encouraging older women to get the vaccine is somehow evidence that the vaccine itself is questionable. She engaged in the same myths. That it’s a “personal choice”, as if herd immunity isn’t a valid concern with HPV, which it is. You bear some responsibility if you refuse to get the vaccine, get HPV, give it to a boyfriend, who then gives it to his next girlfriend, who then gets cervical cancer. Sorry, but something to consider now that you have an option to avoid spreading this very common disease. That the fact that Merck is making money automatically means that the vaccination is probably bad for you—look, they make money on nearly every product they sell,* and most of us aren’t fearful about non-sexualized medications like cholesterol-lowering meds, insulin, painkillers they give you at the hospital, and a whole host of things that aren’t sexy enough to start a public panic. That mandatory vaccinations is using women as “human guinea pigs”, which wrongly implies (yet again) that Merck didn’t put the vaccination through standardized vaccination testing.** But I think what bothered me the most was this:

I’m not going to choose to get the HPV vaccine. Despite Gardasil’s almost frighteningly cute commercial, I’m perfectly happy with regularly scheduled pap smears to detect any risk for cervical cancer

Write this down and carry it with you as a reminder, especially every time you see Pink Ribbon campaign stuff: Cancer screening is not prevention. I single out the Pink Ribbon campaigns, because they’ve been well-funded by companies who are suspected of putting out pollutants that could possibly be linked to breast cancer, so they have a strong interest in making people think that screening is prevention, as opposed to not being exposed to stuff that gives you cancer. But screening is only prevention because it can prevent you from dying. But if they find cervical cancer on your Pap smear, guess what? You still have cancer, which you wouldn’t have had if you’d been vaccinated. Since we all live in a first world country with regular access to medical care, most of us are unlikely to die of cervical cancer even if we get it. But this isn’t true of women in developing countries, or sadly, poorer women right here at home, and this vaccine could do a world of good to keep them from dying. Actual cancer prevention is things like not smoking, exercising, eating right, staying out of the sun without UV protection, and now, getting the HPV vaccine.

Pap smears do nothing to prevent you from getting cervical cancer if you have HPV, and even if you survive cervical cancer, I promise it’s not something you want to get. Treatment usually involves removing your cervix and often your uterus, and then you’re probably looking at chemotherapy. Regular Pap smears increase the chances that the treatment will be minimal, but it will still suck like nobody’s business.

Obviously, most women aren’t going to get cervical cancer, even though most women will get HPV if not vaccinated. So, it’s not a big deal, right? Well, that depends on how lucky you are, it turns out. Some people are super lucky, and HPV never manifests in genital warts and/or it clears up on its own and you never have to worry about. And then there’s those of us who aren’t lucky, and I put myself in that category. Turns out I have this weird genetic thing where my cervical cells are healthy but weird-shaped, and so I can’t get a clean Pap smear if there’s any HPV present. (According to my doctor.) That means that despite the fact that it’s highly unlikely that I’ve got cervical cancer, they have to watch me like a hawk to make sure nothing is going undetected. Which means that, despite the fact that I’ve very squeamish and sensitive to pain in one particular area, I’ve had the pleasure of getting one cervical biopsy already and probably have more in my future. Which is humiliating for me, because I get really nauseous from that specific pain, and it hurts my tender ego to have to lay down like a weenie for 20 minutes after the procedure to get my bearings. A small deal compared to getting cancer, of course, but every time I think about it, I curse the fact that they developed this vaccination a decade too late, and I get upset with younger women who seem to think that it couldn’t happen to them. Look, STDs are not a referendum on you as a moral person, and common ones that you’ll probably get despite safer sex practices like HPV are definitely not a referendum on you as a responsible person. They’re germs, just like the ones you catch when you shake someone’s hand and, an hour later, rub your nose without washing your hands first. The sooner people start to think like that, the better we as a society will be about squashing these diseases out of existence, because shame and unwillingness to admit that you’re at risk is why people spread them in the first place. (Because they don’t get tested and get penicillin, because they don’t get vaccinated, because they have sex while infected while living in denial.)

Believe me, I’m really sympathetic to the hostility to Big Pharma that gives liberals the space to embrace certain right wing memes about Gardasil, and to embrace anti-vaccination hysteria altogether. Big Pharma does some really terrible things. But vaccinations aren’t really experimental treatments of the sort that are behind these horrible human rights abuses. Even new vaccinations are basically developed using the same techniques that they have down to, pardon the pun, a science right now.

When you attack vaccinations, you are really helping Big Pharma out. First of all, you’re being an anti-science crank, and it allows Big Pharma to paint all critics as anti-science cranks, even though with legitimate concerns. Second of all, you’re distracting people from the real issues. The real issues are how they test experimental drugs (in some cases, like the link above), and how they spend their R&D money. People who are freaking out about vaccinations are generally not the same people who are pointing out that drug companies spend all this money on developing mildly different kinds of erection drugs instead of spending that money researching new drugs that we really need, such as more vaccinations. And getting the spotlight off the real problems with drug companies is exactly what Big Pharma wants.

*By the way, natural medicine fans who think that “alternative” medicines are a way to strike back at Big Pharma? Odds are those supplements you’re taking are not only useless, but sold to you by a subsidiary of Big Pharma.
**I do agree that forcing immigrant women to get the vaccination is stupid, especially since it’s not mandated for anyone else. But mostly because of the cost, and because the sexual nature of it means you could be tripping up people’s religious superstitions. I don’t like that people take the sex-hating Sky Fairy so seriously, but giving them anti-STD drugs against their will isn’t the way to approach that problem.

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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