Thursday, March 26, 2009

Can you say "double standard"?

There's an article in the Washington Post today about the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, which Merck is now trying to get approval to market to men. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that strikes about 10,000 women each year and kills about 3,700. For males, the vaccine is aimed at protecting against genital warts and penile and anal cancer (also cancer of the mouth and throat). The virus causes at least 250,000 new cases of genital warts and an estimated 7,500 cancers in males each year, causing around 1,000 deaths. And, very importantly, vaccinating boys and men would also help prevent the spread of the virus to their sexual partners. So mostly, this is a good thing.

However, there's some controversy about the marketing of Gardasil, which is showing the usual double standard in worrying about promiscuity for women, but not for men. When the vaccine was marketed to women three years ago, the main question was: is the vaccine going to encourage young girls to have sex? But now, because it's focused on boys, we're asking, "Is it worth the money, and is it safe and effective enough?"

"We are still more worried about the promiscuity of girls than the promiscuity of boys," said Susan M. Reverby, a professor of women's studies and medical history at Wellesley College. Double standard? Damn straight!

The WaPo says, "Federal health officials, Merck and others say they are confident that the vaccine is safe. But some experts said they are concerned that there is insufficient evidence about how long Gardasil's protection will last, whether serious side effects will emerge and whether the relatively modest benefits for boys are worth even the small risks associated with any vaccine." So it may be a while before this is approved for men. But until then, we need to think about whether there's something wrong in the way that we're thinking about gender and Gardasil It's a vaccine, for God's sake! We should be worried about safety and affordability for both men and women.


At March 26, 2009 at 5:14 PM , Blogger TommyD said...

Let's be worried about boys' and girls' safety here. But let's also discuss some legitimate reasons why there might be a "double standard" in weighing the risks for boys vs. girls. Gardasil was designed and approved to prevent several strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer. Only women can get cervical cancer, because only women have cervices.

Although Gardasil can prevent genital warts and other "male illnesses," the primary reason for vaccinating men would still be to protect women from cervical cancer. (Genital warts are often caused by strains against which Gardasil offers no protection, and anal cancer is still extremely rare.)

Thus, vaccinating women against HPV benefits them personally, could be seen as creating a moral hazard that causes them to have more sex. (Although, this same logic would suggest that galoshes create a moral hazard that causes people to play in mud puddles.) Men, who would not benefit directly from the vaccine would not have the same moral hazard. And since they would not benefit personally, it is reasonable that scientists would weigh their risks more highly.

Is this a double standard? Yes. Latent sexism? Possibly. Still, it's good to consider whether such a double standard has any merit before making accusations.


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