HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Cervical Cancer: The Disease That Binds

What do 12-year-old girls, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, physicians, and President George Bush have in common? Cervical cancer. They star in a Republican morality play around the disease.

Unlike movie-plagues that threaten the planet — think ”Contagion” — cervical cancer is lower key. It infects 450,000 women each year, mostly in the developing world. In the developed world, it is preventable. Pap smears are an early warning-alert, giving women a chance to avoid the disease, or get rapid treatment.

But in the huge chunk of the planet where women do not get regular Pap smears – indeed, where women get virtually no health care at all – cervical cancer is fatal. Clinicians have isolated a main cause: the human papillomavirus (HPV). Like blockbuster-viruses, HPV is almost endemic: roughly half sexually active adults will contact it at some point; but, unlike blockbuster-viruses, most often HPV will disappear on its own. For some people, though, the virus will linger.

HPV is not readily contagious. A touch, a kiss or a sneeze won’t transmit it. Only sex will. HPV travels via sex; the virus can morph into cancer decades after transmission. Happily, in the real world of scientific labs, outside moviedom, scientists found a vaccine. The vaccine does not protect against all strains of HIV. But it protects enough to win plaudits from physicians. It is relatively inexpensive. It can be given to girls before they are sexually active. It will lead to fewer positive Pap smears, fewer cases of cervical cancer, fewer deaths.

The Big Pharmaceutical company that makes the vaccine will make a windfall from its distribution. But since Big Pharmaceutical companies make almost all the vaccines and drugs we use, we accept the profit incentive.

At this point, the story of cervical cancer is, theatrically speaking, humdrum. A disease. A vaccine. A means of distribution. No conflict. But enter the contestants in this Republican race to the nadir of idiocy.

As governor of Texas, Rick Perry signed an executive order for the vaccine to be distributed to young girls. The order had an opt-out for parents who objected in principle to a vaccine, or who knew their daughters would never have sex with anybody who wasn’t similarly virginal. (Pockets of people unvaccinated for highly contagious diseases like measles and polio have sparked disease-outbreaks).

Michele Bachmann, however, raised the “Government is Bad” banner. On television, and now blasted through the internet, she lambasted Gov. Perry for forcing on “innocent 12-year-old girls” a government-mandated vaccine, one that enriched Big Pharm. Of course, 12-year-old girls will probably not be sexually innocent by age 17 or 19 or 23.

By age 35, these women may end up with cervical cancer. (In the Bachmann utopia, with no government health insurance, those women may not get routine Pap smears). Her final salvo: the vaccine causes mental retardation.

At this point, the tale veers into fantasy. Astoundingly, the congresswoman drew applause. Former Sen. Rick Santorum joined in, denouncing Perry’s action. A governor who acted to protect the health of constituents grew defensive, forced to justify his good sense.

(Ironically, the Texas Legislature revoked his order).

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics decried the retardation link, their outrage garnered minimal press. And vitriolic audiences, picking up the “Government is Bad” mantra, have plunged the candidates further down the road to idiocy.

As for President Bush, he has chosen cervical cancer as his post-presidential cause. In 2004 he established an Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief that funds medicines, testing and counseling for millions of people in the developing world. He will expand that infrastructure to include cervical cancer.

Partners include the US State Department, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, and the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS.

This Republican, also a former Governor of Texas, never joined his party’s “Government is Bad” phalanx. In morality-play terms, he joined the side of science, of compassion. From Tea-Partiers’ vantage, he joined the side of Lucifer.

Stay tuned for the denouement, to be played out in Republican primaries.

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

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2011

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