Imagine that scientists invented a vaccine that was proved to safely prevent cancer. Imagine that it was licensed and recommended in the U.S. for all preadolescent girls and available to boys as well, yet five years later only 11 percent of children were receiving the full course of shots.
That’s the actual situation with the human papillomavirus vaccine, the subject of recent debate among Republican presidential candidates. Texas Governor Rick Perry, the front-runner, has been clobbered by rivals for trying to make the vaccine mandatory in his state for sixth-grade girls unless their parents opted out.
The campaign fireworks have distracted attention from the opportunity to consider just what public policy toward the HPV vaccine should be. Perry’s motives have been questioned given that he received at least $23,500 in campaign contributions from Merck & Co., maker of one of two HPV vaccines. But his policy, overturned by the Texas Legislature, was sound. It was simply an update of the usual requirement by states that schoolchildren be up to date on vaccinations against certain infectious diseases.
HPV should be on every state’s list for girls, with an opt-out provision for parents who object. So far, only Virginia and the District of Columbia have added it.
Schools are justified in requiring immunizations because students pass diseases among one another. Granted, HPV is not spread as easily as the viruses that cause chickenpox and whooping cough. But it is communicable. The most common sexually transmitted infection, HPV is spread through oral sex, genital to genital contact, and intercourse. Infection is the primary cause of cervical cancer and also leads to cancers of the anus, penis and throat.
Having schools require the shots would address the three main reasons parents said they didn’t get their kids vaccinated against HPV in a 2010 study by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention: They didn’t think the child needed the vaccine, they didn’t know enough about it, or the child wasn’t sexually active. In fact, kids should receive the inoculation before they begin to have sex; the vaccine offers no protection for people already exposed to HPV. For that reason, the CDC recommends immunization at 11 or 12 for girls and at 9 for boys.
When children are that young, many if not most of their parents have a hard time acknowledging that, fairly soon, the kids could be fooling around. Their inability to do so denies children protection from potentially deadly cancers later in life. That problem can be solved by making the HPV vaccine just another thing to take care of before school starts.
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