“Over 28 times more likely to get anal cancer”
December 14th, 2010
When traveling this year, consider the following:
- The second largest weather killer in the United States is a lightning strike.
- You are over 100 times more likely to be hit by lightning in Florida than California.
Makes ya think, doesn’t it? Perhaps vacation should be at Disneyland rather than Disney World.
But would it help you put things in perspective if you knew that the odds of getting struck by lightning in the US are about 1 in 500,000 and that only 40 to 50 people per year are killed here by a lightning strike? When you know the facts, then all of the above ceases to give you concern and instead you feel manipulated.
Keeping that in mind, look at the following condom awareness psa being aired by New York City:
When you get HIV, it’s never just HIV. You’re at a higher risk to get dozens of diseases, even if you take medications. Like osteoporosis, a disease that dissolves your bones; and dementia, a condition that causes permanent memory loss; and you’re over 28 times more likely to get anal cancer. It’s never just HIV. Stay HIV free. Always use a condom.
But is it true? And, as importantly, is it in perspective?
Osteoporosis is directly related to bone mineral density (BMD) and it is the measurement of BMD that is used to identify and – more or less – define who has or does not have osteoporosis and likely future fractures. And it is, indeed, true that HIV positive persons have higher rates of both osteoporosis and osteopenia (a similar but less sever condition). The reasons are, at present, undetermined.
So, yes it is fair and accurate to warn that HIV can, on average, increase one’s likelihood of osteoporosis (as can being a short white woman). And this condition is common enough that an increase in incidence is material and worthy of discussion.
But it’s not quite all of the story. The handsome young man whose bones were dissolving before our eyes is rather unlikely to have osteoporosis for decades, if ever. Osteoporosis (which primarily effects those over 50) is fairly easy to both treat and forestall, so this young man may need to take extra precautions (e.g. adequate calcium and vitamin D) but he is not going to wake up one morning and find that his skeleton has dissolved to soup.
Dementia is more common in people with HIV than without. Indeed, before HAART, dementia was a common consequence of HIV infection and was often the first qualification for an AIDS diagnosis. Currently it is less common, but still a major concern, especially as HIV infected persons age. (caregiver.org)
Before the arrival of highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART) in the second half of the 1990s, estimates of the percentage of people with AIDS who would develop HAD ranged as high as two-thirds. Many specialists, however, believed that the true figure was closer to 20 to 30 percent. More recently, experts have estimated that less than 10 percent of people on HAART develop HAD. However, because people with HIV are living longer than ever before, a greater number could ultimately develop the disorder, perhaps in its milder forms.
So far, I don’t necessarily quibble with accuracy of the psa, though the imagery suggests that these possible consequences are likely to be onset in early life, a false implication. But now let’s turn to one of my pet peeves, the ooky-spooky (and mostly bogus) anal cancer scare.
Yes, anal cancer exists. And yes it has higher rates in gay men than straight and even higher in HIV positive men. But the inclusion of anal cancer as a “higher risk” and the “28 times more likely” language tells me that this psa has no credibility whatsoever. It is not designed to inform, but to frighten.
The anal cancer scare is a favorite tactic of anti-gay activists. And it is irresponsible and immoral behavior when they seek to demonize gay men by claims that “”homosexuality is by its very nature dangerous to those who practice it.” It is no less irresponsible and immoral to use this scare tactic in the advance of a noble cause like encouraging condom use.
Anal cancer is very rare. In the US, about 5,260 people per year get this disease, of which about 40% are men (so, as you can see, women are 50% more likely to get anal cancer. Beware!!). About 720 patients die. Anal cancer is highly associated with HPV infection (though the vast majority of those infected with the HPV virus never develop anal cancer) and a vaccine is available which eliminates this risk factor.
Gay men, who are more likely to have become infected with HPV in their anus than are heterosexuals, experience anal cancer incidence of about 35 in 100,000. HIV infected persons, as are other persons with a suppressed immune system, are more likely to develop this cancer, but we still are talking tiny tiny numbers, maybe around one tenth of one percent.
Yes, HIV seroconversion is a life-changing experience. While most HIV positive people live relatively the same life as HIV negative people, there are more risks, rules, and precautions. Drug regimens must be adhered to, lifestyle choices have to be made, and health complications of some sort are almost unavoidable.
There are, indeed, many many good reasons to avoid infection with HIV. But fear of anal cancer is not one of them.
I support the dissemination of information that clarifies and warns about avoidable health risks. But I do not support bogus fear tactics that seek to deceive and manipulate, even if the goal is admirable. And this psa is one of the most deceptive manipulation tactics that I’ve seen.
And we cannot blithely suggest that the end justifies the means, when there are real victims of this false impression of HIV. This psa stigmatizes HIV positive persons in ways that are unnecessary and cruel. Viewers leave with the impression that HIV positive persons are about to fall over dead or go stark-raving mad.
And, in the mind of many, the ails of HIV positive people reflect on gay people as a whole. Psa’s that warn of dementia or anal cancer in HIV infected persons translate to many viewers that gay people are diseased and insane. We all, HIV positive and HIV negative alike suffer the consequences of such presentation.
And, besides, they are wrong. Yes, most people with the virus will also have other issues that result. But it is not true that “It’s never just HIV.” For some few, an HIV infection will not result in any medical consequences. I can’t say exactly how many, but it may be more than those who get anal cancer.
GLAAD and Gay Men’s Health Crisis have joined forces to ask the city to pull the ad. I wholeheartedly agree.