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Jeff Sutherland

Twice the Energy with Half the Stress

Nobel Laureate Says Religious Politics Will Contribute to Thousands of Cancer Deaths

Political Science
The Bush Administration’s war on the laboratory
Michael Specter, The New Yorker, 13 Mar 2006

On December 1st, Merck & Company applied to the Food and Drug Administration for a license to sell a vaccine that it has developed to protect woemn against the human papillomavirus. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States; more than half of all Americans become infected at some point in their lives. The virus is also the primary cause of cervical cancer, which kills nearly five thousand American women every year and hundreds of thousands more in the developing world. There are at least a hundred strains of HPV, but just two are responsible for cancer. Tw others cause genital warts, which afflict millions of people. Merck’s vaccine, designed to protect against those four strains, has been tested in thirteen countries, including the United States. More than twelve thousand women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-six were monitored for an average of two years. The results were conclusive: twenty-one of the women who received a placebo during the trial developed the cellular abnormalities that are associated with cancer and other illnesses. Not one of those in the vaccinated group did…

Even in the age of molecular medicine, such unqualified successes are rare, “This is a cancer vaccine, and an immensely effective one,” the Nobel laureate David Baltimore, who has served for the past eight years as president of the California Institute of Technology, told me. “We should be proud and excited. It has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives every year.”

…The Bush Administration, its allies on Capitol Hill, and the religious base of the Republican Party are opposed to mandatory HPV vaccinations. They prefer to rely on education programs that promote abstinence from sexual activity, and see the HPV vaccine as a threat to that policy… The Bush administration has been relentless in its opposition to any drug, vaccine, or inititative that could be interpreted as lessening the risks associated with premarital sex…

“I never thought that now, in the twenty-first century, we could have a debate about what to do with a vaccine that prevents cancer,” David Baltimore said… “this is religious zealotry masked as politics, and it runs against everthing that I as a scientist believe in, that I have devoted my life to. We are talking about basic public health now. What moral precepts allow us to think that the risk of death is a price worth paying to encourage abstinence as the only approach to sex?”

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