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Fighting cancer in school

August 18, 2006

LOS ANGELES MIDDLE SCHOOLERS will have the chance to benefit from an extraordinary medical breakthrough when they return to class in a few weeks: The L.A. Unified School District will make available to female students the first vaccine to protect against the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.

The vaccine, approved in June by the Food and Drug Administration, is most effective when given to girls before they become sexually active. Distributing a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease to 11- and 12-year-old girls, as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, may be controversial in some quarters. But the health benefits are too great to ignore. And the district, which plans to distribute the vaccine when it becomes available this fall, will allow parents who object to the vaccine to opt out.

The vaccine, known as Gardasil, is nearly 100% effective in preventing human papillomavirus infections -- the most common STD in the country, with more than 6.2 million new infections a year. Most cases are innocuous and clear up on their own. But some lead to cervical cancer, which kills nearly 4,000 women in the U.S. annually.

L.A. Unified said it would begin offering the vaccine to middle and elementary school girls. This is important because a disproportionate share of the district's low-income and minority students get vaccinated for free at school clinics. Moreover, low-income and minority women make up half of all cases of cervical cancer.

As for the objections to the vaccine, they mostly center on the notion that giving young girls a vaccine against STDs could encourage them to be become sexually active. But there is no research suggesting that this is the case -- any more than there is evidence that giving people tetanus shots encourages them to step on rusty nails.

The value of a vaccine is in the disease it has been proved to prevent, not in the behavior it may or may not encourage. In this case, Gardasil could prevent thousands of women from dying of cervical cancer.

It isn't often that a medical treatment comes along that could eradicate a vicious disease in just a few years if administered correctly. L.A. Unified is right to make it available to its students.

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