Commentary Sexual Health

What Does Dr. Oz Know About HPV? If His Show Is Any Indication, Not Much

Bianca I. Laureano

Dr. Oz's segment on HPV left much to be desired. It didn't speak to all people at risk of HPV and cervical cancer, and deep ignorance was on display in the comments of some so-called expert panelists.

Last month, which was Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month, I was invited to participate on a segment of The Dr. Oz Show, focusing on HPV and cervical cancer. I was encouraged to share my story as someone who recently had been diagnosed with cancerous cells on my cervix. Though uninsured, I had received treatment over the previous two months.

When the show airs on October 11th, you will notice the following false assumptions or claims:

False Assumption: HPV and Cervical Cancer Affect Only Racially White Women

Everyone on the show was racially white, including those with HPV; the two physicians; Mark Hefti, who’d made a film about HPV; and the man who discussed the death of his daughter from cervical cancer. This is what I mean when I write that white supremacy exists in the sexuality and medical field. In the end, I did not share my experience, but there were at least five women of Color—half of them survivors of cervical cancer and activists—who could have spoken on the show.

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The fact is, HPV affects all people. Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, died of cervical cancer in 1951. Her cells were taken from her body without permission when she was found to have cervical cancer. They were the first “immortal” cells used in scientific research. Given this, how can Dr. Oz fail to represent people who are not racially white? It’s true that cancer is the leading cause of death among racially white people. But the CDC Office of Minority Health ranks deaths by various forms of cancer as the second-leading cause of death among Black people in the United States, especially breast and cervical cancer among Black women. Cancer is the second-leading cause of death among multiracial populations and Native Americans. It is the leading cause of death among Asians living in the United States (Vietnamese women have the highest rates of cervical cancer.) It is the leading cause of death among Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, and among Latin@s.

False Assumption: HPV and Cervical Cancer Concern Only Heterosexual People

The physicians’ discussion of how dental dams work could have been an amazing opportunity to share important information. But Dr. Oz reacted in disgust, asking the audience, “Who would use a dental dam?” Meanwhile, many folks in the audience may have just been introduced to this barrier method. One physician remarked, “If it was between using a dental dam or not having sex, I’d choose not to have sex.” Talk about isolating folks—especially lesbian, gay, and bisexual women—who are using dental dams!

HPV and cervical cancer do not discriminate. The American Cancer Society offers  information for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual women. The CDC’s Cervical Cancer Screening and HPV pages mention sexual orientation. Its Genital HPV Infection page states, “HPV can be passed on between straight and same-sex partners—even when the infected partner has no signs or symptoms.”

However, there is no mention of dental dams as barrier methods on the HPV sites for the CDC, American Social Health Association, or The National Coalition of STD Directors. While condoms are discussed on all sites, physicians, “experts,” and organizations training and doing research on HPV do not address dental dams.

False Claim: People Should Not Have Sex Until Age 21

In what kind of world does an “expert” physician advocate that folks should not have sex until after they are 21 years of age? Regardless of personal beliefs around sex and sexuality, most agree that a physician making such claims is out of touch with the reality of young people’s lives.  

Nowhere on the CDC’s Genital HPV Infection fact sheet is there an argument for waiting until a magical age to engage in sexual activity. There is information about limiting partners, but not an age requirement. The CDC states:

People can also lower their chances of getting HPV by being in a faithful relationship with one partner; limiting their number of sex partners; and choosing a partner who has had no or few prior sex partners. But even people with only one lifetime sex partner can get HPV. And it may not be possible to determine if a partner who has been sexually active in the past is currently infected. That’s why the only sure way to prevent HPV is to avoid all sexual activity.

Still, the CDC’s use of the word “faithful” is troubling because it assumes that monogomy—which is often a religious stricture—is the norm. Nevertheless, many of the survivors I spoke with at the taping had been partnered in monogamous relationships for decades, and some were pregnant when they were diagnosed with HPV, and later, cervical cancer.

False Claim: There’s No Treatment for HPV or Cervical Cancer, Just an Unreliable Vaccine

While there was no discussion of how precancerous cells or cervical, vulvar, or throat cancers are treated—and highly effective treatments are available—the HPV vaccine—which prevents the spread of HPV—was addressed. Dr. Oz announced that one expert on the show had accepted money from the pharmaceutical companies who are creating vaccinations. Nevertheless, the expert said that she would not encourage parents to consider the vaccine, especially for youth under the age of 15. The claim? We just don’t know the effects of the vaccine or how long it stays in the body. This is simply not true. What about giving folks all the information, so they can decide on their own what is best for their family and children? Women in the audience who had been diagnosed with cervical cancer in their early 20s may have supported the vaccine.

This expert mentioned that her gay son had asked her to give him the vaccine. Even after they’d discusssed its long-term effects, her son chose the vaccine, something the CDC recommends: “The vaccine is also recommended for gay and bisexual men (or any man who has sex with men) and men with compromised immune systems (including HIV) through age 26, if they did not get fully vaccinated when they were younger.”

The CDC also recommends the vaccine for girls ages 11 and 12:

For the HPV vaccine to work best, it is very important for preteens to get all 3 doses (shots) long before any sexual activity with another person begins. It is possible to be infected with HPV the very first time they have sexual contact with another person. Also, the vaccine produces a higher antibody that fights infection when given at this age compared to older ages.

One caveat: The CDC’s recommendation that the vaccine be given “long before any sexual activity with another person begins” ignores youth who may have been sexually assaulted, molested, or raped.

What about side effects? One expert on the show mentioned only that redness or swelling could occur at the site of the injection, while the CDC indicates that fever, fainting, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and muscle or joint pain could also occur.

There was a good discussion about anal cancer. One expert said that you do not have to engage in anal sex to be at risk for anal cancer via HPV infection, and HPV may lead to various forms of cancers based on the strain. I don’t recall any mention of Gardisil being useful for preventing anal cancer, but the CDC reports:

One vaccine (Gardasil) protects against most anal cancers. There is no routinely recommended screening test for anal or penile cancer because more information is still needed to find out if such tests can be effective. There are no data on efficacy of the vaccine to prevent cancers of the penis, but most HPV-related cancers of the penis are caused by the HPV types prevented by the vaccines.

False Assumption: Only Folks Who Have Access to Doctors and OB/GYNs Need Worry About HPV

Many people do not get regular Pap tests and HPV tests because they can’t get to the doctor or don’t have insurance or money to afford a visit. When I shared this point with the person soliciting folks to ask questions on the show, the young woman stared at me and then asked someone else for her thoughts.

A nurse, who was racially white and selected to speak on the show, said, “HPV can happen to anybody, not just the poor.” Since when do only poor people contract or transmit HPV? This remark perpetuates the idea that white people are not poor because they have whiteness to fall back on as a safety net.

False Assumption: Transgender People Don’t Exist

Language is important. The participants used the term “female” and “woman” when discussing HPV and genitalia, which excludes transgender people. The CDC has a link called transgender persons that includes a list of organizations focusing on transgender health. The American Social Health Association has a page called transgender health that notes providers should be open, respectful, and accepting of one’s “sexuality.” But using “sexuality” when “gender” is meant over-sexualizes transgender people. And when the CDC uses “women,” it may mean only people whose sex assigned at birth was “female.”

False Claim: Dr. Oz Makes a Case Against Oral Sex

Dr Oz said that you could make a “case against oral sex.” This remark does not recognize that oral sex is enjoyable or may be the only form of affection for someone who has a disability, illness, discomfort with his or her body, or a desire to avoid pregnancy.

False Assumption: There Is No Support for Survivors

The panelists did not discuss support for survivors. But there are many support networks, especially for survivors of cervical cancer, such as Tamika & Friends, Inc., an international organization I helped co-found years ago. It not only offers support to those living with cervical cancer, but also to their caregivers. It focuses on eliminating cervical cancer through HPV education. Its members are activists of Color and cervical-cancer survivors. The National Cervical Cancer Coalition offers an online support network. The Cancer Survivorship Coaching Coalition is specifically for folks working with and caring for those living with cancer. Navigating Cancer Survivorship is a national organization providing support to folks living with cancer and those caring for them, including medical providers. Stupid Cancer, I’m Too Young For This Foundation i[2]y is especially for youth and young adults living with and affected by cancer.

Dr. Oz’s staff and chosen guests were out of touch. One thing Dr. Oz does do well is make medical terminology accessible, but the guest physicians used terms and language that were difficult to follow.

Staff members who recorded lines that were used in a montage wanted folks to “act.” Lines included “I’m so angry” and “I was so scared.” While one woman said she did not want to read the “scared” line because she did not want to discourage folks from getting tested, other women were happy to do whatever they were directed to do.  

After the taping, I received a call from the same woman who’d heard me discuss my insurance experience and dismissed me. She asked if I had come to the show. When I told her I had, she apologized for not introducing herself. At six feet tall with fierce hair, I’m pretty hard to miss!

News Politics

Zika Response ‘Sits Squarely With Congress’ After Administration’s Last-Ditch Effort

Christine Grimaldi

“Our nation’s ability to mount the type of Zika response that the American people deserve sits squarely with Congress," HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell wrote in a letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

The Obama administration’s decision to direct $81 million toward the development of a Zika vaccine pits congressional Republicans and Democrats against each other—and leaves the country no closer to a solution.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives seized on the announcement Thursday afternoon to contend that federal agencies have funds at their disposal to fight Zika. The head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), however, dispelled that notion as she described shifting $34 million within the National Institutes of Health and transferring $47 million to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, both of which would have run out of Zika funds by the end of the month.

“With the actions described above, we have exhausted our ability to even provide short-term financing to help fight Zika,” HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell wrote in an August 11 letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). “Our nation’s ability to mount the type of Zika response that the American people deserve sits squarely with Congress.”

The administration in April pledged $589 million, the bulk of which came from funding to halt spread of the Ebola virus, for “immediate, time-critical activities” to combat the Zika virus. Those funds have been nearly exhausted, Burwell said in an August 3 letter to congressional Democrats on the appropriations committees.

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Congress returns September 6 after a seven-week recess in which Democrats in the House and U.S. Senate repeatedly called on lawmakers to return to Washington and get a Zika deal done. Republican leaders refused, blaming Senate Democrats for obstructing a GOP-engineered $1.1 billion plan prior to the recess. The plan underfunded the administration’s $1.9 billion target and included contraception restrictions for a virus that can be sexually transmitted.

Zika causes microcephaly, an incurable neurological disorder that impairs brain and skull growth in utero, as well as other severe fetal brain defects, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As of August 4, the CDC reported 510 cases in pregnant people living in the United States. Another 521 infections have occurred among pregnant people in U.S. territories.

Puerto Rico Faces Disproportionate Impact

Diagnoses are increasing by the day. As of August 10, the CDC reported 1,962 cases of Zika in the United States. All but seven of those cases are due to travel. That breakdown stands in sharp contrast to Puerto Rico, home to 6,475 locally acquired and just 30 travel-associated cases—in both instances, a few percentage points shy of all the Zika infections in U.S. territories.

The contraception restrictions in Republicans’ plan would hurt the people of Puerto Rico by limiting women to obtaining such services from public health departments, hospitals, and Medicaid Managed Care clinics. Such options are few and far between in the sprawling territory.

Republicans would also prohibit subgrants to outside groups “that could provide important services to hard-to-reach populations, especially hard-to-reach populations of women that want to access contraceptive services,” according to a Democratic summary Rewire obtained last month.

Nevertheless, Republicans continue to defend their plan amid criticism from Democrats and reproductive health-care groups that they’re again waging a war on Planned Parenthood. “[T]he words Planned Parenthood don’t appear anywhere in the law,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), referring to the plan, told Politico in an interview last week.

Rubio Targets Abortion Care

From the beginning, Rubio otherwise broke with his party, supporting the administration’s $1.9 billion plan without similar conditions in recognition that Zika would reach the shores of his home state. All six of the continental United States’ locally acquired Zika cases have occurred in Florida.

At the same time, Rubio had no problem with denying pregnant people infected with Zika access to abortion care.

“Obviously, microcephaly is a terrible prenatal condition that kids are born with. And when they are, it’s a lifetime of difficulties. So I get it,” he told Politico. “I believe all human life should be protected by our law, irrespective of the circumstances or condition of that life.”

Rubio’s comments put him in league with the Susan B. Anthony List, Americans United for Life, and other anti-choice groups that have framed abortion care in the context of Zika as eugenics. Anti-choice advocates have been increasingly using this argument, which hurts people with disabilities as much as pregnant people seeking abortion care, writer s.e. smith reported for Rewire.

Commentary Politics

On Immigration, Major Political Parties Can’t Seem to Agree on What’s ‘Un-American’

Tina Vasquez

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.

It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.

As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.  

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“No Business Being in This Country”

For context, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence are the decidedly anti-immigrant ticket. From the beginning, Trump’s campaign has been overrun by anti-immigrant rhetoric, from calling Mexicans “rapists” and “killers” to calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. And as of July 24, Trump’s proposed ban now includes people from countries “compromised by terrorism” who will not be allowed to enter the United States, including anyone from France.

So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymorenow they’re murderers, too.”

Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”

Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”

It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of originconditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”

There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.

Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.

“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”

Broadly, the takeaway from the RNC and the GOP nominee himself is that undocumented immigrants are terrorists who are taking American jobs and lives. “Trump leaned on a tragic story of a young woman’s murder to prop up a generalized depiction of immigrants as menacing, homicidal animals ‘roaming freely to threaten peaceful citizens,’” Hing wrote for the Nation.

When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.

“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”

“The Border Crossed Us”

From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.

“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”

Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positiveillustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoricat the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.

Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”

Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?

At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.

“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.

The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativist Donald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.

Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:

There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.

But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.

If Democrats were being honest at their convention, we would have heard about their failure to end family detention, and they would have addressed that they too have a history of criminalizing undocumented immigrants.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expanding mandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.

In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.

In addition, President Obama is called by immigrant rights advocates “deporter in chief,” having put into place a “deportation machine” that has sent more than two million migrants back to their country of origin, more than any president in history. New arrivals to the United States, such as the Central American asylum seekers coming to our border escaping gender-based violence, are treated with the same level of prioritization for removal as threats to our national security. The country’s approach to this humanitarian crisis has been raiding homes in the middle of the night and placing migrants in detention centers, which despite being rife with allegations of human rights abuses, are making private prison corporations millions in revenue.

How Are We Defining “Un-American”?

When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”

This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.

During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.


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