On October 6, Merck & Company announced that an experimental vaccine against two of the strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) most likely to lead to cervical cancer has proven to be 100% effective in clinical trials. Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer worldwide, causing an estimated 225,000 deaths each year. Thanks to major advances in early detection (notably the Pap test), the disease is relatively uncommon in the United States; the vast majority of these deaths occur to women in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America.
The new vaccine would provide additional protection to women in the United States while promising huge benefits to women in countries where Pap screening remains rare. Nevertheless, it already faces opposition among some social conservatives who allege that it will encourage young women to have sex. Because the vaccine must be administered to women before they are exposed to a cancer-causing virus, it will ideally be provided to young girls who have not yet become sexually active. Thus, some fear it will have a “disinhibiting effect” on young women, giving them a green light to have sex.
This is similar to the argument mounted by some social conservatives that the availability of condoms leads to more and riskier sexual behavior. However, research analyzing the sexual behavior of adolescents in the United States has shown that sex education and the availability of condoms and contraceptives do not lead to earlier initiation of sexual activity, more sex or more sexual partners. The new vaccine, like condoms, promises to vastly reduce the risks associated with sex, and to save hundreds of thousands of lives.
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