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William Schaffner, M.D.

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'Have We Politicized Our Public Health?'

Posted: 09/22/11 09:11 AM ET

Decades in public health have taught me just how hard it is to communicate sound scientific information to the public through the media. I believe that our work got a lot harder as politicians took to the airwaves to politicize the HPV vaccine. I can't help but wonder how many millions of Americans are questioning the safety of what I feel is a valuable public health vaccine, based on no proof and no science.

The HPV vaccine does not cause mental retardation or any of the host of other maladies to which I believe people wrongly connected the vaccine to. But the vaccine does prevent cancer! It doesn't just "reduce your risk" -- it actually prevents it. A woman who is immune to HPV types 16 and 18 cannot get HPV-16 and HPV-18 related cervical cancer. And right now those represent 70 percent of all cervical cancers.

A few decades ago, the polio vaccine was introduced and the public hailed it as miraculous -- which it was and still is. But now, I believe that our politicians are taking a miraculous vaccine that prevents cancer and using it for political gain. In my opinion, it is shameful to take a public health issue and hijack it for political reasons.

Besides cervical cancer, HPV causes many other types of cancer including throat cancers that are rising dramatically in young and middle-aged men. HPV might also increase your risk of developing skin cancer. And yes, it also causes other genitourinary cancers -- cancer of the penis, anus, vulva and vagina. But those are the locations that lead us back into the world of politics, I'm afraid.

Some in the public health community believe that the dramatic rise in throat cancer means that we are teetering on the precipice of a cancer pandemic. But instead of talking about out how we can use the HPV vaccine to save lives and health-care dollars, our politicians are using public health policy to batter each other in front of a rapt audience.

The benefits of the HPV vaccine are not speculation. We have proof that the HPV vaccine works. Australia was one of the first countries to introduce the HPV vaccination, and has achieved much higher vaccination rates than we have in the United States. As a result, Australia has seen a 50 percent decrease in the incidence of high-grade cervical abnormalities (that is, pre-cancerous changes in the cervix) in females age 17 and younger. Australia has given its young women a chance to avoid a deadly form of cancer that has an average age of onset of 50.

The people making political hay out of HPV vaccination in this country will not be around in 30 years to be held accountable by today's young women when they face cervical cancer diagnoses. I believe that we need to hold them accountable today. Those running for office may deliver innuendo instead of facts on other topics, but I believe that we cannot allow them to do that with the public's health.

William Schaffner, M.D., President of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases