Our choice of media consumption is often based on our choice of in-group or tribe. Science denial is often fueled by our group identity.
HPV, or the human papilloma virus, can be a huge bummer for both women and men. More so for women. When I was 18, precancerous cervical cells were detected during a routine cancer screening. I had the cells removed and was informed that the issue was likely caused by the HPV virus. It wasn’t a big deal, though of course at the time it seemed like one, because I was still a teenager and everything was a big deal. So naturally, a few precancerous cells removed in an in-patient clinic meant I had just narrowly escaped my untimely demise.
A quick shout out to Planned Parenthood, for diagnosing and treating it well before it turned into cancer. I had no health insurance and went to them for a birth control prescription. So thanks, PP.
When my son turned 11 and went in for his annual checkup, his doctor asked if I would like him vaccinated for HPV. Because it wasn’t something included in the regular schedule of vaccines, I checked it out, finding that it would not only prevent him giving the virus to someone else, but would also reduce his chances of genital warts and testicular cancer among other unpleasant things. The vaccine is proven safe and effective, just as all other vaccines are.
But it was optional, and he wasn’t a fan of shots, so I had his doctor explain the benefits and potential risks. He agreed and rolled up his sleeve, albeit on the condition that he receive a donut for his cooperation.
But being the stubbornly curious person I am, I wondered why this fabulous vaccine was optional. The HPV has significantly reduced the instance of cervical cancer in women. And it would have likely prevented my overly dramatic freak-out when I was 18 too. Not to mention the wart thing.
So what the hell?
It turns out that the opposition to the vaccine comes partly from the religious crowd. Not your generic indiscriminate vaccine deniers, although they have issues with it too, but your sex-obsessed purity culture types.
HPV is spread through sex, but also through contact with all types of bodily fluids. Sex is just the fun way to get it. So naturally, they freaked out about it. The general idea was that kids wouldn’t be as scared to have sex. And so they will do it more. And earlier.
Why teach kids about safer sex when you can just scare and threaten them with disease?
But when I was learning about the HPV vaccine, I learned about another vaccine for a sexually-transmitted disease. This one is in the regular mandatory vaccine schedule, but it didn’t face the same problem.
Hepatitis B doesn’t sound like much fun at all. It is also transmitted by the horizontal mambo. But the church ladies aren’t up in arms about that one. What better way to terrify children and teens about sex than long-term liver damage, jaundice, and death! Even my Catholic mother wanted me to be safe and educated in the ways of sex and had no objections to the hepatitis vaccine.
People learned about the hepatitis B vaccine through their doctors. It’s recommended by the same person who prescribes their antibiotics and Viagra.
People learned about the HPV vaccine through the news and social media. And depending on your preferred flavor, you either heard it was safe and effective in preventing cervical cancer and other nastiness or you heard that your 12-year-old child might be emboldened to start their own escort services for their peers.
The HPV vaccine was weaponized by conservative media while it was praised by the liberal side. Now rather than a wonderful advancement in medicine, the HPV vaccine became a victim of political tribalism.
I’ll add a caveat here. Questioning the safety of something you’re going to inject into your child isn’t a stupid thing to do. I did it. The problem is that we aren’t all receiving the answers the same way.
There’s a long list of generally accepted science issues that are now filtered through a tribalistic lens. Climate change, evolution, and stem cell research are a few of them.
But liberals aren’t off the hook either. The irrational fear of GMOs falls mostly on the left. Same with the weird obsession with essential oils and vagina steaming.
I don’t care how smart or pretty Gwyneth Paltrow seems to be, steaming your vagina is a bad move.
As the trust in our public institutions fades, our lizard brains take over and look for confirmation from our in-groups. Or our tribes.
I for one know that my kid won’t be passing on HPV to anyone. But it wasn’t a sure thing. It was optional, and I could’ve just as easily assumed that was a good enough reason to not vaccinate against it.
HPV is in fact a bummer. But the bigger bummer is that a lot of science denial is fueled by tribalism, and that means there are kids whose cancer may have been prevented if only their parents watched a different news show or trusted their doctors more than their Facebook mom groups.