HPV Vaccine: A Diversity Issue?

Cross-posted from McKinney & Associate’s ‘Comm in the Storm’ blog, where I write about Diversity issues every Thursday.

Since I’m on top of things today, here’s a sneak-peek of tomorrow’s post:

This week, a CDC panel endorsed males ages 13 to 21 receive the HPV vaccine, previously recommended for females between the ages of nine to 26.

Gardasil is currently the only FDA-approved HPV vaccine for both males and females.

Backlash against the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ decision is anticipated, mostly due to the fact that the Human Papillomavirus is contracted via sexual transmission. However, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and about 75 percent of sexually active women will contract it during their lifetime:

“Most will overcome the infection with no ill effects. But in some people, infections lead to cellular changes that cause warts or cancer, including cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers in women and anal cancers in men and women. A growing body of evidence suggests that HPV also causes throat cancers in men and women as a result of oral sex.” (The New York Times)

Whether or not people want to acknowledge that children and teens are engaging in sexual behavior (they are, and it’s not always safe), the risks that accompany those decisions persist. And the consequences, it seems, are not equally distributed.

According to the CDC’s own data, Hispanic and Black women have the highest rates of cervical cancer and resulting death rates in the country. Most recent data from 2007 indicates that compared to a national rate of 7.9 percent of females with cervical cancer, 7.5 percent of White women, 10.5 percent of Black women and 11.5 percent of Hispanic women contract the disease.

Not all female-specific cancer is a result of HPV. But from 1998 to 2003, HPV-associated vaginal cancer rates were also significantly disproportionate against Black and Hispanic women as well. The numbers are less skewed for men. During the same time period, HPV-associated anal cancer rates for men reached 1.2 percent for Black men, 0.8 percent for Hispanic men and 1.0 percent for White men.

Even if the new recommendations do prove a “hard sell,” it bears mentioning that in a study among low-income children, boys reported their first sexual experience at a younger age (average 12.48 years old) than girls (average 13.16 years old). And by the way, aren’t low-income youth considered a high-risk population for contracting STDs? So aren’t low-income minorities even more at-risk? I thought so.

Instead of discussing the moral dilemmas in advocating that youth – regardless of gender or sexual orientation – receive a vaccine that can play a significant role in preventing the spread of a serious infection and potential disease, maybe we should be discussing how to make the vaccine more accessible and affordable for the populations already disparately affected?

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