“White girls don’t have sex: The middle class lie on HPV that puts teens at risk.” That was the mocking headline in The New Zealand Herald yesterday, subtitled “Well-off Pakeha parents less likely to get their daughters immunized against HPV.”
The headline picked up on a quote by Karen Page, a PhD candidate at Massey University’s College of Health, who is investigating why New Zealand’s Pakeha — that’s the Maori word for New Zealanders of European descent — weren’t vaccinating their children in high numbers to protect against HPV (human papillomavirus). Vaccination rates were particularly low in schools in affluent communities.
“It’s the ‘white girls don’t have sex [theory] so white girls don’t need it’. That’s what it’s all about, I think,” she told reporter Matthew Theunissen of the Herald on Sunday. The article then proceeded to establish that many white girls do have sex by age 15, and played up a presumed ”fear among parents that giving them the vaccine could sexualize them at a young age, although international research showed there was no correlation between the vaccination and sexual promiscuity.”
The Herald also quoted another expert who reinforced this theme: “Family Planning chief executive Jackie Edmond said it was ‘incredibly sad’ that people were put off by the sexual connotations of the vaccine.
“’If there was any other vaccine that reduced cancers as much as this vaccine you would happily sign up for it and you would happily sign your children up for it,’ she said. ‘The reality is it’s an incredibly effective vaccine.’”
Contrary to these health experts’ claims — none of which was backed up by evidence in Theunissen’s article — there is no reason to believe that the white parents didn’t have science on their side. Certainly Edmond had none on her side. In a developed country such as New Zealand where screening with the Pap smear is easily available, Edmond’s claim that the “incredibly effective” HPV vaccine greatly reduced cancers cannot be backed up by fact.
“Pap smears alone prevent more cervical cancers than can the vaccines alone,” states Dr. Diane Harper, the Principal Investigator for the two HPV vaccines on the market, Gardasil and Cervarix. Even “the combination of HPV vaccine and screening” will not “decrease the incidence of cervical cancer to any measurable degree at the population level.”
Moreover, Dr. Harper asserts, the safest course for a parent in the developed world will generally be to avoid the HPV vaccine. “Pap smears have never killed anyone” but “Gardasil is associated with serious adverse events, including death.” In a country such as New Zealand, where the risk of dying from cervical cancer is exceedingly low, parents could well be prudent to avoid HPV vaccines. That especially applies to white parents, as can be seen in the nearby chart.
Deaths in New Zealand from cervical cancer are low for whites — less than one tenth the rate of death from either breast cancer or lung cancer, and almost off the chart provided by the New Zealand Ministry of Health. The rates are twice as high for Maoris, although still quite low. White or Maori, New Zealand parents deserve accurate information, grounded in science, from their health practitioners and from their press. They don’t deserve to be belittled. If anyone is putting the teens at risk, it is those who promote the HPV vaccine without faithfully disclosing the risks involved.
The New Zealand Herald and Theunissen, who writes on health issues and should know better, require two Band-Aids for allowing unsubstantiated claims by their two experts to go unchallenged.