Why One Life-Saving Vaccine Worked Great and Another Didn’t

computer generated image of two vials on a table

One statue holding another in a dying pose.

Photo by Alain Frechette from Pexels

Not all vaccines are created equal. At least in the eyes of different groups of people, that is.

But one of the most widely adopted vaccines in recent years has been for Hepatitis B. It’s is a terrible virus that infects the liver, eventually causing cirrhosis, cancer, and possibly death in around 25% of the cases. It’s neither a small problem nor a new one.

Every year we see around 350 million people worldwide — including 1.5 million in the US — living with a chronic ongoing form of the virus. Many are even unaware they carry it as it can be asymptomatic, too.

As bad as this is, the number of cases is expected to drastically reduce in the coming decades for one simple reason — mass adoption of the vaccine against it.

But there was another lifesaving vaccine that’s not nearly accepted — and no — I’m not talking about COVID.

There was little resistance to hepatitis B vaccines.

The first iteration of the hepatitis B vaccine was invented in 1981 and later replaced with a safer version in 1989. Two years later, the CDC was recommending vaccination right after birth.

The consensus was everyone should be vaccinated “before they engage in behaviors or occupations that place them at risk of infection.”

Public health historian Elena Conis wrote an excellent history of this particular vaccine, its slowly morphing public perception, and why it was widely adopted in the end.

Essentially, health official guidelines first focused on the most likely victims; injected drug users, healthcare workers, and gay men.

And given the period — with the unrelated AIDs scare — some people started associating the two afflictions.

States mandated vaccines to newborns.

Even with a strong public perception of the problem of hepatitis B in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was still a low adoption rate among adults. While federal authorities didn’t mandate the vaccine, each state could do it themselves.

Many states also had their vaccine decision-making policies completely turned over to local health authorities rather than debating it among their non-expert politicians.

In the early ‘90s, most states in the U.S. started recommending vaccinations to all babies within 24 hours of birth, followed by the full course of vaccines later on.

Essentially, they took the politics out of the picture and trusted the experts to make the policies.

What a crazy idea! So crazy, it worked.

Cases of acute hepatitis B decreased almost 90 percent in the US from 1990 to 2016. The trend will likely continue as more of the general populace becomes vaccinated as time goes on.

Tens of thousands of virus infections stopped with thousands of livers and lives saved. Everyone was happy.

Until the new-age anti-vax crowd formed in the 2000s.

All vaccine policies are not created equal.

There was another virus that was similarly curable just a decade later.

One that also helped prevent a potentially sexually transmitted disease. One that could easily turn into deadly forms of cancer as well. One that was likewise advised to give to children before they became sexually active, albeit 10 years later in life.

There’s also another commonality between them. Both of these vaccines are on the W.H.O.’s Model List of Essential Medicines—because they simply work.

But unlike the slow and steady cumulative prevention of hepatitis B, this vaccine has had far less effect on the spread of the underlying disease. In fact, many of you might even be infected with it right now.

The most recent CDC data suggests almost 43 million Americans may be infected with a form of human papillomavirus infection (HPV), with around 14 million new cases each year in the US alone.

Somewhat startlingly, up to 91% of sexually active individuals will get a form of HPV at some point in their life!

On top of that, “nearly all cases of cervical cancer are associated with HPV infection.”

And just in case you feel safe as a man, you should know that “HPV is associated with approximately 50% of penile cancers.” Now that should give you pause to think with your big head.

But why the difference between HPV and hepatitis B vaccines? They both save lives, yet one was widely adopted and one was fiercely resisted.

Why is HPV vaccination adoption so low?

First approved by the FDA in 2006, the HPV vaccines have been shown to prevent the most common types of infection from the virus.

But even a couple of years later, the adoption rates were abysmal.

Scientists were racking their brains trying to figure out why this life-saving vaccine was being resisted, especially when it came to state mandates. So, they did what scientists do and studied the problem.

The usual suspects popped up; cost, corruption, lack of doctor recommendation, and safety considerations.

But the big problem — at least for some very vocal groups — was the recommended age of injection; between 11 to 12 years old.

Teenagers don’t have sex.

In 2007, Republican evangelical Christian Governor Rick Perry issued an executive order requiring Texas teenage girls to receive the vaccine.

A governor formerly known to not give a flying shit about women’s rights in the state that essentially illegalized abortion 14 years later.

In case you didn’t also notice why that might be considered odd, so did many of his political opponents and news outlets at the time.

As it turns out, not only was the sole vaccine manufacturer (at the time) a campaign donor, but his former chief of staff was a lobbyist working for Merck too.

Outraged, the Texas legislature quickly passed a bill undoing the life-saving policy.

To his credit, Governor Perry criticized the lawmakers as being responsible for the future deaths of many Texans.

To his uncredit, he later fully recanted his mandate as a mistake when running for president in 2012.

The religion of pro-death.

Why did the legislature and Rick Perry not want to save thousands of Texan lives and far more from a preventable disease?

Because their entire base was made up of evangelical God-fearing Christians whose precious daughters would never, ever, ever dream of having sexual intercourse before marriage.

And the men they eventually married would, of course, also have been 100% celibate before getting married at 18 and having 10 children.

They felt giving an STD vaccine to their young teenagers was tacit approval for them to go have sex, because that’s the only reason horny teenagers would engage in the activity.

Right?

And having a mandate enforce such a thing would be the work of the devil…Obama, as his presidential competitor Rick Santorum essentially stated:

“To require [the HPV vaccine], and have parents have to be aware of it and have to opt out, that is the heavy hand of government… That is something I’d expect from Barack Obama, not someone who says they’re a conservative.”

The trap was set.

The vaccine quickly went from one being recommended to save lives to another tool in the belt of power-hungry moralless politicians.

‘Who gives a shit if a few thousand people die in the future, they shouldn’t have been having pre-marital sex, right?!’

As Elena Conis wrote:

“Those opposed to HPV vaccine mandates argued that they undermined Christian values, infringed on parental rights, and put the health of young girls at risk in order to serve corporate interests.”

And this wasn’t just in the political realm of moralless bastions of hypocrisy Texas likes to call its Republican legislators. Even teenagers were affected by the debate.

A study analyzed a large survey of 43,000 youth across the US aged 13–17 conducted by the CDC on the topic of HPV vaccine uptake. It came to some startling conclusions:

“Adolescents from households that did not [have] orthodox religious beliefs were 13.67 times…more likely to get vaccinated for HPV compared to adolescents from orthodox families.”

Children that weren’t from evangelical families were 13.67 times more likely to get vaccinated! That’s insane.

But even the Catholic church publicly supports the vaccine. Of course, not when it’s mandated, though.

Why?

Because they “presume that genital HPV infection is not transmitted while students are in school.”

Keep in mind the period of schooling they’re replying to is for girls from the ages of 9… to 26…Jesus.

I guess this is based on 100% of their youth being 100% pure as a result of their religious and abstinence teachings during the same period.

How could any other possibility exist in a world covered in rosemary-colored glasses?

It’s a familiar pattern.

Focus on the Family, one of the largest fundamentalist Christian advocacy groups in the world — in addition to claiming the vaccine was unproven — had this to say on the subject:

“Focus on the Family affirms — above any available health intervention — abstinence until marriage and faithfulness after marriage as the best and primary practice in preventing HPV and other STIs.”

States that promote abstinence above all and even exclude other forms of sex education have the highest unplanned teen pregnancy rates in the US.

Quelle surprise.

When 1 + 1 = 0.5

The lasting effects of two very similar vaccines and their outcomes based on whether or not they were politicized is apparent.

For the hepatitis B vaccine, 91% of children over the age of 24 months are receiving the vaccine as of 2016. The ongoing increasing adoption of the prophylactic helped lead to the 90% reduction in cases.

HPV, on the other hand, has a startlingly low adoption rate and even worse, a wide geographical variation. Take a wild f*cking guess which states have low vs high adoption rates.

A recent study showed on average, across the US, that while 40.5% of eligible teenagers begin the two-shot vaccine process, only 23.4% end up finishing.

These are two very similar cases, with two vastly different outcomes.

It’s only through human stupidity, religion, and politicization that this happened. We’re simply hardwired to interpret facts as our beliefs fit, and not the other way around.

Especially when an issue is politicized.

We’re kinda screwed.

It’s called biased assimilation and it’s hurting us more in the modern world than anyone could ever have expected.

It’s what happens when evangelicals hate the idea of ‘big government’ and saw COVID 19 “politicized as ‘government control over my life’ and an infringement on individual choice and rights, not as a health issue in many respects.”

It’s what happens when Michele Bachmann, a far-right former presidential nominee, makes up stories repeatedly linking a potentially life-saving shot to constituents’ daughters becoming mentally retarded. All so she can score points with her uber-religious science-skeptic base.

It’s what happens when a pathologically lying failed businessman politician, worried about the short-term effect of a pandemic on the economy when he has an election coming up, gets up in front of the world and pronounces “It’s going to disappear. It is disappearing.”

But unfortunately for us — at least in the case of COVID — 700,000 needless deaths have already occurred, with countless more to come.

This problem isn’t solved.

Not for HPV vaccines and not for COVID.

And yet the answer is incredibly simple:

Politicians need to stay out of societal medical issues.

Period.

Richard Chataway, the vice president of BVA Nudge Unit UK, a behavioral science organization, said medical “advice was much more likely to be adhered to and followed when it was communicated by the chief scientific adviser” rather than a politician.

Why?

Because the medical advisors would both be perceived as experts on the subject — and even more importantly — unbiased.

When a politician interjects over his board of medical staff — and has the idiocy and gall to counter their opinions in public — people will die.

The tribes will hear what they want to hear. The ones in favor of the politician will eat up every word they say. The ones opposed will do the opposite.

When this happens, it’s already too late. Each group will believe the facts based on their feelings for the politician and not the reality of the situation.

By this point, after the initial damage has been done, there’s almost no way to undo it.

Other than to die, I suppose.

But I ask you again, which political party is that happening with today?

Is it the party that had a politician shove the Chief Medical Advisor to the President off to the side and call him an idiot?

Is it the party that’s way more unvaccinated and filling up our hospitals?

Is it the party with constituents desperately searching for an ‘alternative’ cure like hydroxychloroquine, a horse dewormer, or friggin’ bleach for Christ’s sake?

Yes. It is.

And it’s not their fault. Not completely. They’ve been had.

It’s what happens when politicians push aside morals — if they ever had any to begin with — and put party before country.

It’s the exposure of pure unadulterated moralless greed, which seems to be celebrated in today’s world. It’s the societal personification of winning at all costs and people are dying en masse as a result.

Modern Rome is cracking at the seams and the world can only watch on in horror.

But hey, at least a bunch of politicians and religious grifters will be able to afford an extra yacht come Christmas.

And in the end, that’s what really matters to them, right?


J.J. Pryor

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