Steve Chapman
Cancer treatment has made great progress in recent decades, but the tragedy is that so much of our effort to combat this scourge is just that: treatment. Once a disease appears, there is only so much that can be done. It would be far cheaper, more effective and less traumatic to prevent it.

A vaccine for cancer would be a triumph for public health. Did I say "would be"? Actually, it is. Such a vaccine exists for one of the biggest killers of women. But Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., is against it, and she's not alone.

Two different vaccines block transmission of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes 70 percent of all cervical cancer in this country, as well as most anal cancers and some cancers of the throat, vagina and penis.

Each year, says the National Cancer Institute, more than 12,000 American women are diagnosed with cervical cancer alone, and some 4,000 will die of it. That's not counting the genital warts HPV can cause.

It's a nasty but very common bug that the world would be better off without. Universal inoculation would be a huge step toward eradicating it and the suffering it causes.

But there is a big impediment to its use: HPV is sexually transmitted, which makes the vaccine controversial -- especially because to achieve maximum effectiveness, it has to be administered before the recipient becomes sexually active. And in this country, 6 percent of youngsters have sex by the age of 13.

So the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that females get the vaccine no later than age 12. As governor of Texas, Rick Perry required that girls be immunized.

He defended then the mandate as "responsible health and fiscal policy that has the potential to significantly reduce cases of cervical cancer and mitigate future medical costs." Bad for cancer, boon for the budget. What's not to like? But Perry has retreated under attack from fellow conservatives.

One allegation is that he made the decision to repay drug maker Merck, a longtime campaign contributor. That might explain his unusual willingness to mandate the vaccine even though public health groups were not in favor of compulsion.

But Bachmann also accuses him of heartless cruelty. "To have innocent 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong," said Bachmann.

Oh? Children are routinely subjected to "government injections" when they get compulsory inoculations for polio, diphtheria, measles and other illnesses. Most states require kids to be immunized against hepatitis B, which is commonly contracted sexually. What's cruel about being protected from cancer?

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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