I recently contacted the Dearborn, Michigan Health Department to see if they provide the HPV vaccine. The receptionist said yes, but that it is only recommended for women ages 11-26. Beyond age 26, health insurance will not cover the vaccine and it is pricey. Depending on the clinic, the cost could range from $140-$180 per shot for a series of three shots over a 6 month period.
The inflated cost and discriminatory governmental regulation putting an age cap on the vaccine is due to cost and supply as well as the assumption that by age 26 women will have already been exposed to the virus or be settled in a committed relationship.
This assumption excludes a huge population of women in the Arab community who choose not to be sexually active until they marry, even well beyond the age of 26.
I wasn’t as disturbed by the unreasonable cost or the typically exclusionary policies of our government as I was by the receptionist’s commentary that followed.
She asked why I would be interested in the vaccine if I’m over age 26, “Aren’t you Arabic?” she asked. Yes, I said, but what does that have to do with anything? “Well Arabic girls don’t sleep around. It’s not in our culture. You shouldn’t worry about it, honey.”
She may have been well intentioned, but her ignorance about the virus and how it is contracted disturbed me. I was especially angered by the flippant dismissal of my concern because I was from a community that values chastity.
I asked if she was a nurse and she said no, she only does the scheduling, but again told me “not to worry about it” or spend my money on this vaccine. I tried to enlighten her about the gravity of her harmful advice. Being more aware of the dangers of this deadly virus can hopefully dispel stereotypes and save lives.
HPV stands for Human Papilloma Virus. It is the most commonly transmitted virus in the US. More than half the US population has carried this virus without realizing they have it because there are over one hundred strains of it. Sometimes the immune system readily fights it off and other times the strain is too strong and can manifest in genital warts, cervical, throat, or anal cancers.
There is no HPV test for men. Men will not know they carry it unless they or their partners develop one of these cancers or warts. Women can be routinely tested with annual pap exams, and early treatment may prevent cancer.
HPV is typically spread through direct contact with others. The critical point is that unlike the AIDS virus, it is not only spread through bodily fluids but skin-to-skin contact. In other words, condoms DO NOT protect against it. It can be transmitted by touching or oral contact, even kissing. Yes, kissing.
Many Arab women worry about maintaining their virginity before marriage. They will do just about everything else under the sun but harm their hymen, not realizing how easily they can still catch the HPV virus.
Many Arab men openly explore sex before marriage without suffering the same stigma placed on women. However, when they marry, the chaste “good girl” is often desired. These men do not stop to think about the harm they might bring to a future relationship from their previous experiences.
Additionally, many husbands these days are openly cheating on their wives in our community, callously expecting them to put up with it or leave, knowing that they won’t leave for security reasons, especially when children are involved.
Even more disturbing are the cases where women who are cheated on think the appropriate retaliation is to cheat on their husbands as well. If he can do it, then so can I, is their damaging logic.
The point is: even within our Arab community with all its idealistic morality and religious propriety, diseases are rapidly spreading and few people are stopping to think about it, let alone talk about it.
Girls who are not sexually active must still consider the sexual history of their future partners and that of all the women the men have been with—which is impossible to know for certain. Giving girls this vaccine is NOT an open invitation to promiscuity. It is a precaution to consider.
When those working in government offices in our community give uninformed biased advice to women seeking to protect themselves, it worries me greatly. If a girl requests the vaccine it should not be presumed she is “sleeping around”.
It’s important to note that the vaccine won’t fully protect women, but it does protect against the most harmful strains of the virus: those causing genital warts and the deadliest types of cervical cancers.
I ask members of our community to think logically about this issue free of stigma. It’s time to take off the blindfolds. Let’s stop shaming women when they seek to protect themselves and be more aware of the realities facing them today.
You can learn much more about the HPV virus by visiting this website.
Send comments to: HPV_BeAware@yahoo.