HPV: Have you heard of it? You probably have, because in the last few days and weeks it’s been talked about a lot — often incorrectly — by people like Michele Bachmann and, most recently, tweeted about by Ayelet Waldman, wife of novelist Michael Chabon. In Bachmann’s case, she’s using HPV very politically (and this makes her suck more) to do battle against Rick Perry, Texas governor, her competitor for the GOP nomination for president, and the guy that, as governor, signed an executive order mandating that 12-year-old girls get vaccinated for HPV, which is a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer. (In fact, it’s the PRIMARY way that women get cervical cancer.)
Bachmann is “righteously indignant” about this vaccine, Gardisil (there’s also one called Cervarix), and Perry’s ultimately overturned executive order in a way only a Tea Party candidate can be, claiming that little girls will suffer untold consequences of being violated by the vaccine (like not getting cancer!) and also, that the vaccine might cause mental retardation and in fact did in the case of one child. You don’t get a do-over, not when you have little children’s lives at risk, she said. (Again: HPV CAUSES CANCER.)
Here’s Bachmann talking, if you want to get really angry.
Perry, by the way, who has said he made a mistake in issuing the order (a politically driven admission more problematic than the order, we think), has more recently said Bachmann’s comment about mental retardation being caused by the vaccine had no basis in fact. Bachmann, for her part, has since confessed to Sean Hannity she actually has “no idea” if Gardisil causes mental retardation and “I am not a doctor, I’m not a scientist, I’m not a physician.” Which is precisely why she shouldn’t be talking about Gardisil.
But, moving on…Ayelet Waldman, known for her, let’s call it, “openness” on Twitter, has made an HPV confession of her own, namely, that she had HPV, which she got from her husband, who got it from…someone else. She’s since deleted the initial tweet saying from whom because, as she put it on Twitter,
Frankly, how she got it, or from whom, and the wheres and whys and even the fact that each of the parties was monogamous — nor how Waldman knows for certain that the person she identified was patient zero of the family’s HPV situation, because it’s pretty hard to track — frankly, we’re not really that concerned about any of that. Feministe puts it well: “Why is it TMI and uncouth for a woman to say she got HPV from her husband? Would it be equally TMI for her to admit that she got, say, chicken pox from him?”
We’re going to go out on a limb here. Even people who’ve gotten HPV from non-monogamous one-night stands, even people who other people might call “slutty,” even people who’ve gotten HPV from whatever sort of sex they’ve had, with whomever they’ve chosen, should not have to, as “punishment,” get cervical cancer.
HPV is a confusing virus — like Bachmann, we’re not doctors, scientists, or physicians — but we do know something about HPV because, like Waldman, we had it. So what?
Every close female friend we’ve had has had HPV; our gynecologists tell us that the majority of their patients have had it, some more than once; and, a fact:
HPV that affects the genitals is very common. As many as 20 million people are thought to have an active HPV infection at any given time, and as many as 5.5 million new cases of genital HPV infection occur in the United States each year. Most men and women — about 80 percent of sexually active people — are infected with HPV at some point in their lives, but most people never know they have the virus.
(With regard to that stat: Bachmann, note, has been and possibly still is a sexually active person who, she herself has admitted, has “no idea” about certain things.)
From the CDC:
HPV is passed on through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex. HPV may also be passed on during oral sex and genital-to-genital contact. HPV can be passed on between straight and same-sex partners–even when the infected partner has no signs or symptoms.
A person can have HPV even if years have passed since he or she had sexual contact with an infected person. Most infected persons do not realize they are infected or that they are passing the virus on to a sex partner. It is also possible to get more than one type of HPV.
Further, condoms are not reliable in preventing HPV, because it transmits from skin to skin contact and, FYI, “condoms do not cover all of the genital skin.” Many people don’t even know they have it, because it is often symptomless — women learn if they have it, and what strain of the virus, and whether it causes cancer, from their yearly Paps. Not just women but also men have it…meaning the little girl who didn’t get the vaccine might get it from one of those men, because men are not tested for it, and because, though men, too, can get vaccinated with Gardisil, they rarely do. Sometimes HPV goes away on its own, no big deal — and sometimes it requires further effort to combat. This, also, is something women do not talk about.
Men: Not having a cervix does not protect you, here. Yearly stats in the U.S., via the CDC:
* 400 men get HPV-associated penile cancer
* 2,700 women and 1,500 men get HPV-associated anal cancer
* 1,500 women and 5,600 men get HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers
Another fact: Gardasil is nearly 100 percent effective at preventing HPV.
Perhaps the greatest danger in the battle against HPV is one of PR. People are ashamed (after all, it’s an STD), and women in particular are shamed. No one wants to admit it, no one talks about it, and when people do, it’s in whispers and there’s a lot of misinformation. What if no one wants to date or have sex with me ever again?, think women. What if I’m “dirty,” or “ruined”? What if I can’t have babies?
But what if you knew that almost everyone you knew had at one point had (or currently has) HPV? Would you feel less ashamed? If all of us have had it, and all of us admit it, doesn’t it take the shame, and some of the fear — not to mention the fear of getting the vaccine — out of it?
So say what you will about Waldman, but we give her props for opening up this discussion in a very public way. And we would like to declare this Friday, September 16, “Tweet that You Have (or Had) HPV Day.” Maybe if Bachmann and people like her know that we’re neither ashamed nor afraid of admitting it — and see how many people have coped with the virus — she’ll herself be shamed and finally shut the fuck up. Maybe.