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Barbara Kay: HPV rule is more evidence that boys don’t matter

Vaccinating young people may help halt the spread of HPV, which a new study says may be linked to as many as a third of all incidents of throat cancer.

Some years ago, a medical researcher at a Canadian university told me, in confidence, that he and his team had been following a most promising hypothesis, which, if tested successfully, might bear extremely fruitful results in combatting a major disease. But the test had to be be done with a certain kind of incubation methodology only practicable with male subjects. It would mean that any beneficial consequences would first be experienced by a control group of men, but the end result would be of benefit to both men and women. He told me that he was stunned when his department head nixed the project, explaining that any project that even appeared to offer men a medical advantage over women was not admissible as research.

My conversation with the researcher came to mind when I saw the CBC story out of B.C. regarding human papillomavirus vaccines that are free for girls in Grade 6, but not for boys. Fiona Brinkman, a mother who was $340 out of pocket for her son’s vaccination, calls the gendered disparity “really quite ridiculous and cost prohibitive.” It’s not only the cost that irks her. The girls are vaccinated in school with no inconvenience to the parents whatsoever, while Ms Brinkman had to go to the doctor, get a prescription, fill it at the pharmacy, refrigerate it, then go back to the doctor to have it administered.

Adding fuel to her grievance is the fact that boys who are “vulnerable” to the virus – i.e. “those who have sex with males or who are street-involved” (in the government’s words) – can also receive the vaccine free. But as the admirably commonsensical Ms Brinkman asserts with justifiable incredulity, “asking a 12-year old boy who is still at the stage where they sort of think of sex as a bit weird to basically figure out if they will still be at risk later in life is really difficult.”

The government’s position is that there isn’t enough money to provide all boys with the vaccine, but that with all girls being protected, the boys don’t have to worry – or the heterosexual boys, that is. Well, using the government’s logic, one could say that girls who remain chaste have no need of the vaccine at all, and the money could therefore be spent only on those children, female or male, who intend to be “vulnerable” by having lots of sex, an obviously nonsensical proposition, but no more nonsensical than the government’s actual stance.

 To appreciate the inherent bias going on here, imagine a vaccine that helps both sexes stay disease-free, but the government decides only boys will get it for free, because, you know, if all the boys are safe, then probably all the girls will be too. We all know that would never happen. When it comes to health care, heterosexual males are second-tier citizens.

Another case in point: In 2006 a protocol called RUCS – Routine Universal Comprehensive Screening, even though it was not “universal” by any means –  became operative in 25 Ontario public health units, according to which any girl aged 12 or under, who presented at any health unit for any reason at all, was screened for past or ongoing sexual abuse. RUCS was proudly bruited to the 137,000 registered nurses of Ontario as a “best practice.”

Knowing that the statistics on child sexual abuse are almost equal for boys and girls, I queried two spokespeople from the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario as to the ethical dimension of the one-sex policy. Their explanations were: “There is no evidence to support the screening of men at this time”; “We know it is helpful for women, [but] we don’t know if asking men about their past is helpful”; “[Screening boys] may do more harm than good.”

These are disingenuous dodges and completely unprofessional. There certainly is evidence to support screening for boys and I found plenty of it in a simple Google search. Moreover, in a 2005 article in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, one finds a study concluding: “Sexual abuse is a serious problem, but the boys and men who have been abused rarely report this experience unless asked during a therapeutic encounter,” and “Those professionals who do not screen both boys and girls for abuse are not meeting professional obligations by withholding services that they know or should know would be beneficial to their patient/client.”

Thinking back on that story of the suppressed research project with which I began this piece, I am morally certain that if the testing process had involved remedial consequences for women first and men later, the project would have gone full steam ahead. A lower regard for boys’ health and, let’s face it, boys and men in general is a systemic theme in government decisions. The HPV decision in B.C. is but one example amongst many demonstrating that both sexes are supposedly equal in theory, but in terms of government practice, one sex is more equal than the other.

National Post