Why don’t more girls get the HPV vaccine??

Vaccines that prevent cervical cancer! YAY!

Imagine if there was a vaccine that could prevent cancer. Everyone would want it, right?

Surprisingly, no. There IS a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, which affects about 12,000 women every year, according to the CDC. Unlike most cancers, cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted virus, Human Papillomavirus, also known as HPV. The virus can cause abnormal cell growth in the cervix, which can turn cancerous. The vaccine, approved in 2006, works against many common strains of HPV.

The vaccine is recommended for girls ages 11-12, and also provided to women up through their early twenties.  The goal is to protect girls long before they are ever sexually active, so that they never contract HPV in the first place. As of 2011, the vaccine is also recommended for adolescent boys.

HPV is so common that more than half of all sexually active men and women in the United States will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. According to a CDC factsheet on the HPV vaccine, “about 20 million Americans are currently affected, and 6 million more are infected every year.” In most people, HPV infections never lead to symptoms, but it can cause development of cancer of the cervix, and, more rarely, cancer of the vagina and anus, as well as genital warts. Men can also develop cancer from HPV. The virus is transmitted through skin to skin contact, so condoms are not nearly as effective at preventing the spread of this disease, as they are for many other STDs.

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Dear Texas

Dear Texas,

Your recent decision to cut off funding for women’s health care puts young and low income women and their families across your vast state in danger. I know that you claim that you are trying to prevent taxpayers from financing abortions, which is a controversial procedure, but cutting off funding for clinics that provide gynecological services and birth control is not the solution. You may not have heard this before, but birth control prevents unwanted pregnancies, which prevents abortions.

I know what you are thinking, Texas, you want to tell me that actually, women not having sex is cheaper and more effective at preventing unwanted pregnancies. Which would be true, except that you can’t make people stop having sex. No matter how many times you tell them that it’s bad. It doesn’t even work on impressionable teenagers. To convince you, I built you a map:

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The female orgasm: a story about sex and questions about natural selection

It's an Epipactus gigantea, from a spring in the Mojave Desert.

In general, science writers love to tell stories about the quirks of evolution, the strange ways in which Darwinian natural selection has created the living world around us. And there are tons of great stories to tell.  The danger, however, lies in assuming that natural selection has created every interesting trait we find in the living world.  It can be too easy to theorize adaptive advantages and imagine evolutionary stories about how traits could have increased the reproductive success of those who possess it.

My favorite un-adaptive story comes from Elisabeth Lloyd’s brilliant book, The Case for the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, published in 2006.  She writes about two of my favorite things: sex and science. But this is real science, a serious meta-analysis, not pop-sci sex fluff (which can be fun too sometimes, don’t get me wrong) But Lloyd’s book is fascinating. Continue reading

Why plants are awesome! (part 1)

This is a post for my sister, Emily, who is currently working at a camp in the mountains, teaching about nature  to Los Angles middle-school kids.  Apparently, she’s having trouble getting them interested in plants.  Luckily, I love plants.  So, this is only the beginning of  my kid-friendly reasons that plants are awesome. In no particular order:

#1 Plants use showy colors, fragrances, and free food to entice insects and birds to help them have sex.  Okay, you can say mate or reproduce if you are worried about the repercussion of talking about sex with 6th graders, but the point remains that when we talk about flowers, we’re talking about sex.  Most plants, rooted to the soil, can’t get up and chase a mate, they can’t decide to mate with the male who sports the best display of tail feathers or the strength to win fights. They are stuck. Which is where the flowers come in.

Can you see the bugs crawling around, drunk on pollen? Beavertail Cactus in bloom. Opuntia basalaris

Plants give away free food, pollen and nectar, because as the pollinators go from flower to flower, they spread the reproductive cells in the pollen around.  Promiscuous sex!  Flowers have evolved for the pollinators they want.  Specific smells, colors, and shapes, all attract specific pollinators.  This specificity matters, because, from a plant’s perspective, they don’t just want to spread themselves out every which way.   Continue reading

Plan B, Bad Science, and the Blogosphere

Crisis in the  female reproductive system is hitting the “I’m a woman who’s not afraid of science or sex” section of the blogosphere. Given, it’s not a huge group of writers, but these ladies mean business. Since I am a proud member of the club, I thought I’d take a moment to catalog the action:

The drama begins with a “health” and beauty columnist at XOJane (a new feminist web magazine) writing about a shortage of Plan B in New York City. Which is a legitimate issue. However, her piece is a disaster. She’s trying to be chatty and funny about sex and birth control, which, is a good way to approach a touchy subject (I know from experience) but she crashes and burns. An example from her list of birth control options:

2) Birth control pills. NO. They will make me fat; they will make me “spot” (another thing I squeamishly just DON’T LIKE TALKING ABOUT; don’t worry, though, everyone else who works here does); they will give me acne; and quite frankly, they will NOT prevent me from getting pregnant! I know this because IT HAPPENED TO ME™.

She’s not funny and she’s spreading patently wrong information.  The pill does work, and it does not make you fat.  Studies have proven this, again and again.  However, it doesn’t work if you don’t remember to take it, which is what she uses as her justification in the next paragraph. Continue reading