OK, that’s an exaggeration. But still, this is pretty amazing:
Two vaccines to prevent HPV infection were introduced a few years back, Gardasil and Cervarix. A new study, as reported by the New York Times and NBC News, shows the vaccine has been a huge success: HPV infection rates have dropped by a staggering 50 percent in U.S. teen girls since the introduction of the vaccine. This is despite the low uptake rate; only about 1/3 of teens 13 – 17 have received the full course of three shots.
These results jibe well with an earlier report from Australia, too. There, HPV infection rates dropped 59 percent in girls and women aged 12 – 26, and 39 percent in boys and men.
Despite the concerns of the anti-vax Left, we have not had an explosion of deaths, dismemberments or mental retardation. And despite the concerns of the Religious Right, there do not appear to be hordes of nubile women roving the countryside looking for men to sleep with now that they are free of the menace of HPV.
(From my perspective, I still share a small concern about the potential side effects of the vaccine. Side effects can take a long time to show up. I personally know women who are DES daughters, suffering fertility problems for drugs they were exposed to in utero. That’s less likely with a strain of a virus hundreds of millions of people have been exposed to. But while the risks of the HPV vaccine now appear to be low, they are unlikely to be zero.
The latter concern — that this would encourage girls to sleep around — was always bullshit. No woman has ever said, “Gee, I’d love to sleep with all these creepy 60-year-old guys who look me up and down. If only it weren’t for the risk of HPV!” If all venereal disease were ever eradicated, we probably would see more promiscuity — incentives matter. But our society would probably not be much more debaucherous than it is now. The primarily limitation on people’s promiscuity is their nature, not the risk of disease.)
I have a severe enough libertarian twitch that I still oppose mandating the vaccine. But I don’t oppose even stronger recommendations coming down from governments in the wake of the new data. This is a virus that can be spread by casual contact. It’s not quite the menace that measles is: the likelihood of any particular infectee developing cancer is low. It’s just that the virus is so common that it murders 4000 American women a year through sheer numbers.
But … this is a disease that we could render extinct. At least in theory.
The eradication of smallpox is one of the greatest achievements in human history. The progress we have made in driving measles, mumps, rubella, etc. out of our society comes a close second. HPV is not in their class. But it maims. It kills. We’ve won the first skirmish with a nasty murderous virus. Time to step up the fight.