In 1999, we knew that HPV could spread beyond what a condom could cover. Republican legislators wanted to put a warning label on condoms. Suddenly, HPV was at the forefront of America’s sexual-health and wellness. And then, like that, we erased HPV’s power and viral abilities from our speech. While some Republican legislators may have had ulterior motives, 15 years ago, we could have informed the public about the HPV epidemic.

In my usual Monday evening search of the week’s HPV news to send out to my network and steering committee, I came across an article so absolutely smoldering with misinformation, 15 years later, it still burned with error and mistruth. Have you seen this piece by Sharon Lerner of the Village Voice?

In 1999, I was a junior in high school and had no idea that in less than 15 years, I would lose my entire reproductive system to the same virus that Sharon so poignantly calls, a “relatively inconsequential disease.” Sharon tries to prove the point that since Republican legislatures want to put HPV warnings on condoms, it will control a women’s right to sexual activity and, “scaring women out of their gourds.” While some argue that the Republican want for abstinence-only education clouded their judgement in imprinting warnings on condoms. However, condoms with a warning might have prevented many HPV-related cancer deaths. The real problem is, possibly for the first time ever, Republican legislatures were right about women’s health. However, those actually in charge of medical information and STD education were brilliantly and utterly wrong. Take Helene Gayle, for instance:

“The best way to screen for cervical cancer is a pap smear, not to test for HPV,” says Helene Gayle, director of the National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control. “You’d have no clue which ones of those people would actually develop cervical cancer. It’s a very inefficient way to look for the real problem, which is cervical cancer.” (Village Voice) 

How could we have been so incorrect about HPV and HPV-related cancers just 15 years ago? One could only hope that Helene Gayle was terminated from her post at the National Center for HIV, STD and TB prevention after that statement. However, she now is the President of Care.org, an organization dedicated to medical care and service in 3rd world countries, (where ironically, HPV-positive cancers are rampant.) Is it okay that we were once this blind to think that cervical cancer had no direct link to HPV and the importance needed to be on cancer and not on the virus that caused it, 99.9% of the time?

“What no one in the HPV brigade mentions, however, is that, even by conservative estimates, a teeny number of people who have the virus—far less than 1 percent—will develop cervical cancer.” (Village Voice) 

HPV was an epidemic and a warning on condoms might have been the perfect way to spread information. Lerner goes on to asert in complete and utter ignorance that this was a game for women’s bodies and the control of sexual health. Call me crazy, but we could have made an serious impact in HPV education 15 years ago. Once again, we let politics get in the way.

Want to read more? This sobering piece from ChristianityToday is worth the open mind and the time: Tell Someone About HPV? We tried.