Sexual Health Roundup: Study Finds Gardasil is Safe, New Jersey Lawmaker Seeks Ban on Reparative Therapy


New Study Finds Gardasil is Safe

A new study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that Gardasil, one of the vaccines designed to prevent HPV and cervical cancer, is safe. Researchers at Kaiser’s vaccine study center examined 190,000 female members of Kaiser Permanente’s health system. The women received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine between August 2006 and March 2008; about 44,000 women received all three doses.

Researchers followed the health of these women for two months following each dose of the vaccine, including visits to the emergency room and hospitalizations. They looked at more than 200 categories of illnesses. “Asthma, diabetes, nervous-system disorders, and medical conditions such as attention deficit disorder, back pain and other injuries were reviewed. In most cases the condition existed before the vaccine was given.”

They found the vaccine caused skin irritation, including redness and swelling at the injection site that occurs within two weeks of the shot, and possible fainting episodes on the day of inoculation. But they found no connection to any serious health problems.

Gardasil protects against four strains of HPV, two of which account for about 70 percent of all cervical cancer. Since it was first approved in 2006, the vaccine has been the subject of controversy, in part because it is recommended for girls as young as nine years of age. Opponents of the vaccine have argued without evidence that this forces parents to have uncomfortable conversations and gives young women permission to be promiscuous. Opponents have often used—and inflamed—parents’ fears about the safety of vaccines in general and this vaccine in particular to discourage its use. This study should help public-health experts and medical providers allay fears about safety.

As I like to say every time I write about this topic, we now have a vaccine to prevent a type of cancer. Run, don’t walk to the pediatrician’s office as soon as you can.

New Jersey Lawmaker Looking to Follow California’s Lead and Prohibit Reparative Therapy for Teens

Last week, California became the first state to ban reparative therapy, the practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation or “cure” homosexuality. Now, a lawmaker in New Jersey would like his state (which is also my state) to follow suit. Recently-elected Assemblyman Tim Eustace, from Bergen County,  plans to introduce a bill this week to outlaw so-called gay conversion therapy. Like California’s law, this law would apply only to licensed practitioners. This could mean that some New Jersey young people would be exposed to it anyway.

Still, Eustace, an openly gay man who has two sons with his partner of 32 years, argues that the ban is important and likens it to the government protecting young people from other potentially harmful activities, such as underage drinking, indoor tanning, or smoking cigarettes. In a statement Eustace said:

Studies and personal testimony have shown this practice creates irreparable harm on young people struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. Forcing someone to deny their innate feelings and their very existence has led to depression, suicidal tendencies, and other untold harm. Leading psychological professionals agree that this practice has no place in legitimate mental health therapies. I hope New Jersey will join California in leading the way on standing up to this harmful practice.

But not everyone in the state agrees with the congressman’s position. Jeffery Danco, a clinical psychologist based in Bridgewater, practices “reparative therapy.” As a licensed health-care provider, he would be directly affected if the law were to pass. Danco believes that reparative therapy can help and tells his teen patients that they can change their homosexuality like “any other sense of inadequacy or inferiority.” He calls the law “a politically-motivated government intrusion” and argues that parents have the right to choose what kind of therapy their kids receive.

The legislation has a long way to go before it could pass in New Jersey, and it will be interesting to see whether, if passed during his term, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will join California Gov. Jerry Brown in signing such a law. Groups in California are already working on lawsuits opposing the law, and any law passed in New Jersey might face the same.

Memphis Responds to New Tennessee Sex-Ed Law by Requiring Parental Consent

You may remember that Tennessee passed a new sex-education law last year.  Though most such laws change without too many people noticing, this law got national attention because of the phrase “gateway behaviors.” Specifically, the law says that courses cannot “promote any gateway sexual activity or health message that encourages students to experiment with non-coital sexual activity.”

The law became the target of jokes. Steven Colbert teased that “kissing and hugging are just the last stop before the train pulls into Groin Central Station.” The law does not indicate exactly what constitutes a gateway behavior. (I vote for a bouquet of flowers and a back rub.) But the author of the bill swears that we will know it when we see it. Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) argued in his testimony to the Tennessee House of Representatives that:

Everybody knows there are certain buttons when you push them, certain switches when you turn them on, there’s no stopping, especially for undisciplined, untrained, untaught and unraised children who just want to feel affection from somebody or anybody.

Despite its status as a national joke, the law was signed by the governor in May and went into effect in July.

In response to the law, Memphis public schools changed to an “opt-in” policy. This change was based, not on the gateway language but on the law’s emphasis on parental control over sex education. John Barker, the district’s chief of staff, argued that:

“The new law really pushes more for parents to have a say in whether their children are taught a more specific curriculum with regard to sex ed.”

An opt-in policy means that students must bring back a signed permission slip from their parents before they can participate in any sex-education courses.

Sex-education advocates are opposed to opt-in laws because they cause administrative headaches. More important, they may prevent some young people from receiving education because of lack of organization, not strong opinions: The form got left in the bottom of a kid’s backpack, lost in a pile of bills, or a parent just forgot to send it back. One parent in the area said that the change will “absolutely” mean fewer kids will get sex education. She went on to say:

“Everybody needs this. The ones already falling between the cracks are the ones that are going to be hurt. The cycle of poverty will continue with more unwanted children and pregnancies.”

Parental-consent policies are frequently debated by school boards and state legislators, but this change was not required by the new Tennessee law. In fact, under the law, parents simply have the right to take their children out of class by signing a “non-consent” form. This type of a policy is referred to as “opt-out” and is common in states and communities across the country.

Though a spokesperson for the Tennessee School Boards Association said he had not heard of changes in other districts, the decision in Memphis should remind us that laws can have a far-reaching and even unexpected impact on whether young people learn about sexuality in schools.

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