HPV Vaccine Effort Encounters Strong Opposition

Published June 1, 2007

Parents determined to resist an aggressive campaign by a major corporation and government bureaucracies were heartened this spring as a nationwide, orchestrated attempt to mandate the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine for their 11- and 12-year-old daughters appeared to have been stymied.

On April 23, the Texas Senate passed legislation, by a 30-1 vote, to override Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) February executive order prohibiting girls from attending school without proof of having been vaccinated against HPV. The bill, H.B. 1098, passed the state House in March. The measure now goes to Perry, who can sign it, veto it, or let it become law without his signature, which would happen in 10 days. Both the House and the Senate have enough votes to override a veto.

When HPV vaccine mandates began to roll through 24 state legislatures early in 2007, pro-family activist groups such as Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and Eagle Forum alerted parents. Parents, in turn, expressed outrage to their state lawmakers and wrote letters of opposition to their local newspaper editors.

As the public controversy heated up, Dr. Jon Abramson, chairman of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), chafed at the idea of another vaccine mandate, this one for a sexually transmitted virus.

“I told Merck my personal opinion that it shouldn’t be mandated,” Abramson told The Washington Times in February. “And they heard it from other committee members.”

Supporting Parents

The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) assembled an ad hoc coalition of national and state leaders supporting parents’ right to direct their children’s medical care.

“The AAPS led in forming the Hands Off Our Kids coalition because parents were being ignored in the adoption process of these mandates around the country,” said Kathryn Serkes, AAPS’s director of policy and public affairs.

The HPV vaccine controversy began in earnest early in January when 24 state legislatures (see table on page 11) introduced bills requiring sixth-grade girls to be injected with three doses of Merck & Co’s newly developed Gardasil, a vaccine to prevent the spread of the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, which causes genital warts and can lead to cervical cancer.

According to the CDC, 70 percent of cervical cancer cases stem from HPV, equaling almost 6,800 cases per year. More than 14 strains of HPV are associated with cervical cancer; Gardasil protects against four. Merck marketed Gardasil as one of the first cancer immunizations.

Gardasil only prevents HPV–it can’t treat it. Thus, the drug company urges girls be vaccinated before they become sexually active, suggesting ages 11 and 12.

Using Influence

Some lawmakers, including Illinois state Sen. Debbie Halvorson (D-Crete), have personally dealt with HPV and the resulting fear of developing cervical cancer. Halvorson took up the HPV vaccine mandate as Illinois Senate majority leader by proposing 11- and 12-year-olds be required to have the vaccine for school attendance.

At the same time, Merck’s influence in promoting the mandates became a matter of concern for parents. Merck admitted making campaign contributions to various political figures at the vaccine mandate forefront, including Halvorson.

Encouraging Education

Soon after Merck withdrew its lobbyists, legislative momentum slowed, and amended, less-intrusive HPV vaccine laws began appearing. As state lawmakers chose to encourage parental education and promote funding to provide the $360 shots, rather than mandate them for school attendance, parents relaxed.

The AAPS urged the federal government not to pay for the vaccine in states mandating its use–a position outlined in a bill introduced in March by U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA), a family physician. The Parental Right to Decide Protection Act (H.R. 1153) is co-sponsored by 27 others and at press time was awaiting testimony in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

“As an OB-GYN physician, I understand the importance of protecting Americans from sexually transmitted diseases, and I applaud the development of an HPV vaccine,” Gingrey said in a press statement. “But for states to mandate vaccination for young women is both unprecedented and unacceptable.

“States should require vaccinations for communicable diseases, like measles and the mumps,” Gingrey continued. “But you can’t catch HPV if an infected schoolmate coughs on you or shares your juice box at lunch. Whether or not girls get vaccinated against HPV is a decision for parents and physicians, not state governments.”

Challenging Congress

Gingrey’s bill would prohibit federal funds from being used to support mandatory HPV vaccination programs. The legislation does not prohibit federal funds from supporting optional vaccination programs, and any state with an optional program could use Medicaid and education dollars to provide vaccinations to students.

Serkes congratulated Gingrey’s commitment to parental rights in making decisions for their children’s health care.

“Rep. Gingrey was willing to step up to the plate and introduce this legislation. We’re usually fighting on the side of state legislators who get slapped with unfunded mandates from Congress, but in this case they’re asking the feds to pick up the bill for their actions,” Serkes said.

“We hope that state legislators will think carefully about the true cost of these mandates–and if Congress takes away the federal blank check, they will be forced to do just that,” Serkes said.

Fran Eaton ([email protected]) writes from Illinois.

For more information …

“CDC doctor opposes law for vaccine,” by Gregory Lopes, The Washington Times, February 27, 2007, http://www.washingtontimes.com/business/20070226-115014-2031r_page2.htm

“HPV Vaccine Questions and Answers,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/STDFact-HPV-vaccine.htm