Tag Archives: cervical cancer

Weekend sendoff: TMI?

VaccineWhat an interesting week for me. I said that I would talk about Monday’s post from a more personal viewpoint today, and based on the comments on that post (about which more in a bit), I’d like to disclose my personal experience with HPV, cervical cancer, and critical thinking.

I’m one of those women who might well have benefited from the Gardasil vaccine. My HPV infection was not short-lived, and was associated with cervical cancer. After my initial abnormal Pap smear, I underwent numerous colposcopies and biopsies over the course of a year. I finally developed cancerous cells, and had to undergo LEEP to get rid of them. This was not due to a weak immune system. During my bout with active Graves’, I developed a chronically high white blood cell count, which persists to this day; additionally, findings show that people with CFS have upregulated immune systems. In other words, despite my illness, my immune system actually works better than most people’s — but my HPV strain was stronger. I acquired it in a monogamous relationship, after we’d gotten tested for STDs. My partner, who is now my husband, was told by two male doctors that those bumps on his penis weren’t anything to worry about, and by one male urologist that he’d already given me HPV so there was nothing more to do. (A female nurse practitioner, on the other hand, actually bothered to treat him.)

So does my personal experience invalidate my position on HPV vaccination? Yes, it would if I’d reacted to it the way the crazies do, and said “This is my personal experience, therefore I am convinced, and I’ll make up the science if I have to in order to convince everyone else.” During the course of my treatment, Gardasil was being evaluated by the FDA. Naturally I was very interested to hear about this, even though I was not a candidate for it. I read about it and discussed it with doctors whom I respect. I’ve continued to read about it to this day. I might not have had the most skeptical viewpoint at the time, but I do now, and my position still hasn’t changed: If I had a child, I would want to have him or her vaccinated against HPV. I understand the problem better than many because of my experience, but it’s the (valid) science that has made up my mind. If that science were eventually to show different findings, then I would investigate again and possibly re-evaluate my position.

One way it’s easy to tell that someone is trolling rather than actually presenting ideas for discussion is that he will bring up unrelated issues, and then accuse you of evading those issues when you choose not to take the bait. I do not pretend to be any kind of expert in the medical or biological sciences. I will never write a blog post explaining the medicine behind – well, anything, including my own conditions, except as far as my layperson’s understanding goes. My understanding is pretty good, if I may say so, but still, I am not a biological scientist or a science writer.

In my post on Monday, I wrote about the deceit and the delusion that are hallmarks of the conspiracy theorist, and in the comments, I was rewarded with several excellent examples of this. First, an antivax conspiracy theorist linked to various sites that hold no authority whatsoever, one of which provided a perfect primer for how misinformation is invented and disseminated. That person further attempted to press me into a debate on vaccinations. Why on earth would I want to debate someone who has already proven that he will stoop to lying to make his point? Also, the antivax looneybait is tempting, but tired, and has been disproven often and well enough by much more qualified people, that it’s a waste of time for me to regurgitate that proof at the whim of someone whose mind is already made up. My point was and still is the lack of and disrespect for critical thinking that lead to conspiracy theories endangering public health.

Meanwhile, Heidi’s comments became a perfect example of Poe’s Law, which was coined on a Christian discussion forum and goes like this:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.

Heidi is actually an awesome skeptic gal whose comment nicely illustrated how Poe’s Law can apply to many extremist points of view, not just religious. Smart people commented either here or privately to me elsewhere, conveying their distaste with Heidi and/or her statements. And rightly so! I don’t blame the people who bought it: of course anyone who took that position for real should be vilified. That it was plausible her absolutely ridiculous point of view could be for real confirms that there are, in fact, beliefs out there that are just as fucking crazy, or far more so. And what does it say about a movement that someone who allegedly holds such a repugnant opinion is so easily believed to be an adherent?

One last, “non-partisan” thought on this. My little blog here dreams of aspiring to one day being a blip on the landscape. I love working on it and I truly appreciate every single person reading this right now, even those who disagree with me, but you are a…let’s be kind and call it an “exclusive” bunch. The fact that even I couldn’t write a piddling post of this nature without attracting a (proportional) amount of disagreement is quite the reminder to me of just how widespread and rancorous this debate has become. I don’t think I would have gotten the same kind of comments if I’d gone after Holocaust deniers or even the 9/11 wackadoos.

Well, I’ve had a lot of fun and also learned a lot. I feel like I should send you off with something relevant, so here is a Bad Astronomer post with a short talk by Dr. Joseph Albietz on the subject of vaccination. But it’s Friday, so here’s also something totally irrelevant: a musical clip from the new Sherlock Holmes movie. Or something.

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Compassion only goes so far

TinFoilHatAreaSkeptics, in some circles, have a reputation for being cold and devoid of emotion, with a bleak view of the world as seen only though the sterile lens of science.

Well, bullshit, obviously. You can’t generalize a group like that, and even if you could, it doesn’t take a whole lot of reading in skeptical blogs and literature to see plenty of humor, passion, and wonder going hand-in-hand with inquiry.

But the stereotype is what people like the anti-vaccination proponents would like you to think. Their message goes further when “the opposition” — also known as medical science — is painted as heartless, solely profit-driven, and without a thought for, who else, the children. (This argument of course falls flat when you consider how many children, or entire communities of children, are harmed when parents decide not to vaccinate.)

In an earlier post, I wrote about how even as I was being targeted by a bottom-feeding snake-oil salesman, I could understand what had driven him to that point. As unpopular as it may be for a skeptic, I’ve tried to do the same thing when it comes to antivaxxers. By this don’t misunderstand that I’m talking about supporting their position. Rather, I think it’s worth it to disprove the stereotype and look at the debate from an emotional standpoint.

Reading through the stories of parents whose children became ill or died from either a proven or imagined reaction to a vaccine, I find it hard to be entirely unsympathetic. When this happens to a child, be it an actual side effect or a sad coincidence, I can only imagine how devastating it must be. I understand that the parents must desperately want someone or something to blame.

Combine this impotent anger and grief with the ease of finding antivax networks all over the Internet, though, and some parents get steered off course. They must have understood once that vaccinations benefit both their own child and the entire community, or they wouldn’t have done it in the first place. But when something happens to their child, suddenly all their knowledge about how many lives are saved through vaccination vanishes. Instead, they are provided with validation that they can blame something: the vaccine. This emotional validation is supported by bad, cherry-picked science, and sometimes by the unfortunate cachet of people like antivaxxer Jenny McCarthy. To me this is no different from the chronically ill person who gratefully grasps at the snake oil, because it’s being sold by someone with whom they share a terrible experience and who finally has an answer and a scapegoat for them. It’s not an excuse for poor critical thinking, but it is a reason.

Then there’s the sad case of Natalie Morton, who died on September 28 shortly after being vaccinated against HPV with the drug Cervarix. Antivax networks picked up this story and ran with it, naturally. But then it turned out that she was seriously ill with a tumor at the time she was vaccinated. And here is where my compassion for the antivaxxers vanished. Any critically thinking (or even just “thinking”) person would recognize that Natalie’s death, while tragic, doesn’t make a case for ceasing all vaccinations, due to her condition.

Instead they went all conspiracy theory.

I can’t hold any respect for people who consciously deny or distort reality in order to validate their delusions, and I certainly can’t continue to be sympathetic. I truly understand the way pain can short-circuit logical thinking, but there is no excuse for twisting facts or outright lying in order to further your cause. Your personal pain is no excuse to endanger others’ lives. The ideal of skepticism is that when faced with evidence that disproves our beliefs, we take that evidence into account and may change our beliefs accordingly. What’s happening here is the exact opposite of that.

I plan to continue this theme on a more personal level on Friday, but if I wind up chickening out, don’t judge me too harshly.

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