Sunday, April 24, 2005

Fundamentally Wrong

Recently, NPR did a series of pieces to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Salk vaccine for polio. I hadn't realized that it had been fifty years, but I should have. I remember when the announcement was made and the tears in my mother's eyes as she read the news article. Polio was the scourge of my childhood. The little girl who lived on the corner had polio and was confined to bed, her legs useless and her breathing forced.

Now, the disease simply doesn't exist in this country and many of the countries in the developed world. Unfortunately, we haven't been so successful in the under developed world, such as Africa. The World Health Organization and other non-governmental organizations have struggled for years to put into place mass vaccination programs to eradicate polio, but they frequently are thwarted for the most astounding of reasons.

One part of the NPR series dealt with the problems in Nigeria. I did some checking and found this story about the source of the problems:

The global campaign to eradicate polio by 2005 is being threatened by the resurgence of the disease in the far north of Nigeria.

Despite this, an immunisation programme has been put on hold because of claims by Muslim clerics that the vaccine is being deliberately contaminated as part of a western plot.

In the predominantly Muslim region where anti-American sentiments often run high, the idea that the polio vaccine is part of a US plot to render women in the developing world infertile quickly took hold.

How whacked is that? At least that was my initial response. That "anti-American sentiments" run high in the Muslim world comes as no surprise. We've earned it. Still, Islamic scholars are not ignorant. They have to know that allowing their children to die from a horrible disease that could be prevented is a stupid price to pay.

That same week, I learned this bit of news.

DEATHS from cervical cancer could jump fourfold to a million a year by 2050, mainly in developing countries. This could be prevented by soon-to-be-approved vaccines against the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer - but there are signs that opposition to the vaccines might lead to many preventable deaths.

The trouble is that the human papilloma virus (HPV) is sexually transmitted. So to prevent infection, girls will have to be vaccinated before they become sexually active, which could be a problem in many countries.

In the US, for instance, religious groups are gearing up to oppose vaccination, despite a survey showing 80 per cent of parents favour vaccinating their daughters. "Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV," says Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian lobby group that has made much of the fact that, because it can spread by skin contact, condoms are not as effective against HPV as they are against other viruses such as HIV.

"Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex," Maher claims, though it is arguable how many young women have even heard of the virus.

I've lost several friends to cervical cancer, including one that also had HPV. Like all cancer deaths, it is a horrible way to die. Even if one is able to overcome the cancer, the treatment itself is hellish with longstanding complications (e.g., post chemo pain syndrome). Why would any person who claims to be ethical want to short-circuit a way to prevent cervical cancer? Is it really about the sex?

I think there is more to this conundrum. I think it no accident that in both of these stories, the key is the agenda being put forth by those who would withhold the life-saving vaccine. In both cases, the objections are being expressed by those who are fundamentalist in their approach and their beliefs. In both cases, unstated though the principle may be, there is the demand for complete control over those deemed weaker and less valuable: women and children.

And in both cases, the objectors are fundamentally wrong.


Blogger Woody (Tokin Librul/Rogue Scholar/ Helluvafella!) said...

hi diane...
though i am sympathetic with your views, i don't think it's especially 'anti-americanism,' but rather a larger, anti-colonialism which motivates much of the Muslim world...the Islamic world has suffered much, and long, from the imposition of 'western values' under the regimen of colonialist economics, and they have long memories mainly because their history of oppression at the hands of the west is almost completely unbroken over the last milennium...

that'd make me skeptical, too

1:02 PM  

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