HPV and the Gardasil Vaccine: Medicalization and the Gendering of Bodies and Bodily Risk
By Lauren Camara
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that has been at the centre of public health discussions over the past decade. It is one of the most common STI’s in the world, and appears most frequently in adolescents and young adults. If fact, HPV is so common that one in every two sexually-active people will contract at least one HPV infection at some point during their lifetime (Abdelmutti and Hoffman-Goetz 422). With over one-hundred identified strains, most infections present either minimal or no risk to health in “immunologically-competent” individuals (Abdelmutti and Hoffman-Goetz 422). HPV infections are typically “asymptomatic and harmless; most people never know they are infected, and most infections typically resolve on their own” (Dailard 6).
In Ontario, however, HPV is represented as a serious health risk that must be dealt with through mass inoculation. Both the provincial government of Ontario and Merck & Co., Inc. (the pharmaceutical company behind the preventative HPV vaccine Gardasil) have served to create a “blockbuster vaccine embedded in a discourse of individualized risk and pharmaceutical control centred on female bodies” (Mishra and Graham 57).
As a result, hundreds of thousands of young Ontarian females have been pre-emptively protected against HPV through a “government-sponsored immunization cohort” (Mishra and Graham 59). The risk discourse surrounding HPV in Ontario reflects Conrad’s claim that medical experts, patients, and biotechnological corporations “interact in complex ways that affect social norms in changing definitions of behaviours and interventions” (11). Both the communication of HPV risk and the push for HPV immunization are part of the medicalization process, wherein disease-related risks become a marketing platform for pharmaceutical companies.
HPV risks have been constructed in ways that disguise the moral implications of the infection as sexually-transmitted in order to soften the sensitive moral and political nature of HPV vaccines. Discussions of HPV and immunization offer an example of the ways in which gender segmentation in the medical realm acts as a strategy for exploiting and reinforcing gender boundaries (Conrad 11). Thus HPV risk communication exemplifies the “deeply gendered control and surveillance of bodies and bodily risk” (Mishra and Graham 58).