Although I rarely state it on these pages, I am an atheist. As a scientist, I’ve examined the evidence for a god (any god), and found it lacking. I think religion, especially in the USA, can be dangerous. Religious fundamentalism is behind the attack on teaching of real science, such as evolution and global warming. Although some may argue that trying to block the teaching of evolution, in favor of creationism, is innocuous (though absolutely unconstitutional), most would argue that since evolution is the basis of all biology (and therefore, medicine), it is harmful.
It’s when fundamentalist religion gets involved in medicine, whether it’s therapeutic abortions, vaccines, or stem-cell research, that it’s clear that religion becomes dangerous to human lives. I just want to focus on one tiny corner of the medical world, where religious beliefs block good medicine–HPV vaccinations.
For those of you may be unfamiliar with the HPV vaccine, it prevents infection by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease. The vaccine, known as Gardasil or Cervarix in the USA, specifically blocks HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18; HPV types 16 and 18 cause approximately 70% of cervical cancers, and cause most HPV-induced anal, vulvar, vaginal, and penile cancers. Cervical cancer, which afflicts 12,000 additional women and causes over 4,000 deaths annually in the USA, is considered the “preventable gynecologic cancer” because of the HPV vaccines.
Despite the science-based evidence that HPV vaccines save lives in a direct manner, a recent survey of HPV vaccination of teens is disheartening. Less than 25% of US adolescents and teens are fully vaccinated with the HPV vaccine.
Admittedly, the reasons for not getting the HPV vaccine is varied. For example, about 16% of parents didn’t vaccinate their children because of “safety concerns.” Of course, a huge study of over 190,000 young women, receiving over 350,000 doses of Gardasil showed no serious adverse effects. This study actually tracked every patient who received the vaccine very closely, attempting to observe adverse effects. Their conclusion: “this study did not detect evidence of new safety concerns among females 9 to 26 years of age secondary to vaccination with HPV4 (quadrivalent HPV vaccine).” It is a safe vaccine.
Another reason mentioned was that their children are not sexually active. Of course, if their children remain virgins until they’re married and the partner they marry is also a virgin, maybe that reason is justified, while remaining incredibly naive. The Family Research Council, a right-wing fundamentalist Christian political lobbying group, publicizes (pdf) that “other methods” are available to avoid HPV infection like abstinence. Focus on Family, another fundamentalist political lobbying organization states (pdf) that “The HPV vaccines do not, in any circumstance, negate or substitute the best health message of sexual abstinence until marriage and sexual faithfulness after marriage.”
Clearly, neither organization is anti-Gardasil, but they both oppose mandatory HPV vaccination of children. We require vaccines for measles, chickenpox, polio and a huge number of other diseases, some of which are much less serious than HPV. And both organizations push the point that if the child remains a good Christian, then they will never be exposed to HPV. Of course, this presumes that the young man or woman is not ever going to be sexually assaulted. Or that their future partners aren’t going to be infected with HPV.
But many other Christian groups use all sorts of tactics in trying to suppress the use of Gardasil. One group totally misrepresents a case study in which a young girl had premature ovarian failure a few months after a Gardasil vaccination. The actual paper, written by a Catholic activist physician, Dr. Deidre Little, concludes that “The diagnostic tasks were to determine the reason for her secondary amenorrhoea and then to investigate for possible causes of the premature ovarian failure identified. Although the cause is unknown in 90% of cases, the remaining chief identifiable causes of this condition were excluded.” In other words, this young girl fits in the unknown cause group, and there was no evidence whatsoever that Gardasil was a causal factor.
Speaking of the Catholic Church, it has stood in the way of getting Gardasil immunizations to teens. A Catholic bishop in Calgary (Alberta, Canada) is urging that Catholic school boards block the use of Gardasil. The local bishop says administering the vaccine would undermine the schools’ effort to teach children about abstinence and chastity in accord with the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Canadian government pays for the vaccinations, an incredibly intelligent move to prevent long-term health issues for these kids. Also, Canadian Catholic schools are different than ones in the USA–the government funds them (which I find ridiculous for a truly secular country like Canada).
The same thing happened in Trinidad & Tobago, where the Catholic Church “strongly recommends that parents of children attending Roman Catholic schools should desist from allowing their children to be vaccinated with Gardasil, pending further advice from CEBM.”
There is even a myth, promoted by various anti-Gardasil groups, that the vaccine promotes promiscuity itself (implied in the statements from both Christian organizations mentioned above). But a recent article in Pediatrics concludes that “HPV vaccination in the recommended ages was not associated with increased sexual activity-related outcome rates.”
Religion, specifically orthodox Christianity, needs to stay out of having any influence on evidence-based medicine. I’m just speaking about Gardasil in this article, but religion sticks its beliefs into other areas of medicine. For example, ridiculous new anti-abortion laws may kill more mothers, because doctors are precluded from making the right medical decisions.
Gardasil is safe. Gardasil blocks infection from HPV, which causes a variety of cancers. Gardasil saves lives. And outdated and absurd religious beliefs ought to stay out of the medical decision process.
- Bednarczyk RA, Davis R, Ault K, Orenstein W, Omer SB. Sexual activity-related outcomes after human papillomavirus vaccination of 11- to 12-year-olds. Pediatrics. 2012 Nov;130(5):798-805. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-1516. Epub 2012 Oct 15. PubMed PMID: 23071201.
- Castellsagué X, Muñoz N, Pitisuttithum P, Ferris D, Monsonego J, Ault K, Luna J, Myers E, Mallary S, Bautista OM, Bryan J, Vuocolo S, Haupt RM, Saah A. End-of-study safety, immunogenicity, and efficacy of quadrivalent HPV (types 6, 11, 16, 18) recombinant vaccine in adult women 24-45 years of age. Br J Cancer. 2011 Jun 28;105(1):28-37. doi: 10.1038/bjc.2011.185. Epub 2011 May 31. PubMed PMID: 21629249; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3137403.
- Darden PM, Thompson DM, Roberts JR, Hale JJ, Pope C, Naifeh M, Jacobson RM. Reasons for Not Vaccinating Adolescents: National Immunization Survey of Teens, 2008-2010. Pediatrics. 2013 Mar 18. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 23509163.
- Klein NP, Hansen J, Chao C, Velicer C, Emery M, Slezak J, Lewis N, Deosaransingh K, Sy L, Ackerson B, Cheetham TC, Liaw KL, Takhar H, Jacobsen SJ. Safety of quadrivalent human papillomavirus vaccine administered routinely to females. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012 Dec;166(12):1140-8. doi: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.1451. PubMed PMID: 23027469.
- Little DT, Ward HR. Premature ovarian failure 3 years after menarche in a 16-year-old girl following human papillomavirus vaccination.BMJ Case Rep. 2012 Sep 30;2012. doi:pii: bcr2012006879. 10.1136/bcr-2012-006879. PubMed PMID: 23035167.
- Lowy DR, Schiller JT. Prophylactic human papillomavirus vaccines. J Clin Invest. 2006 May;116(5):1167-73. Review. PubMed PMID: 16670757; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC1451224.