Governor orders anti-cancer vaccine for Texas schoolgirls

AUSTIN, Texas (MCT) — Texas is poised to become the first state in the nation to require 11- and 12-year-old girls to be vaccinated for the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.

Gov. Rick Perry on Friday ordered state health officials to enforce the rule requiring girls entering the sixth grade to be vaccinated for the human papillomavirus, known as HPV. Parents who have religious or conscientious objections may opt out of the requirement, which is scheduled to take effect at the beginning of the 2008-09 school year.

“The HPV vaccine provides us with an incredible opportunity to effectively target and prevent cervical cancer,” Perry said in a statement. “Requiring young girls to get vaccinated before they come into contact with HPV is responsible health and fiscal policy that has the potential to significantly reduce cases of cervical cancer and mitigate future medical costs.”

Perry’s order tracks the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has advised that the vaccination be given to all girls ages 11 and 12. The Atlanta-based centers estimate that 3,700 women in the United States died of cervical cancer in 2005.

In his statement, Perry said HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S., with about 20 million people infected. Texas has the second-highest number of women with the virus. About 400 Texas women died of cervical cancer last year.

The order was met with harsh criticism from one of the Republican governor’s most conservative allies and with praise from organizations that have often criticized Perry’s policies.

“Today’s decision by the governor is not just a positive step forward in efforts to promote women’s health, it is also an important acknowledgment that health and science should not be held hostage to politics and ideology,” said Kathy Miller, who heads the liberal-leaning Texas Freedom Network.

Planned Parenthood of North Texas also supports efforts to make the vaccine required.

But Cathie Adams, who heads the Texas Eagle Forum, said she was “very sad” that Perry issued the order and warned that state health officials and executives with Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the vaccine marketed as Gardasil, are usurping the role traditionally played by parents.

“I am absolutely opposed that Merck and the state government are planning to inject young girls with a cancer-causing virus,” Adams said. “And I don’t think the opt-out provision is the way to go. Parents who want to should be able to opt in on behalf of their children; no one should be forced to have to opt out.”

Although some conservative and religious organizations have expressed concern that ready access to a vaccine aimed at a sexually transmitted disease might promote promiscuity, Adams said such fears are secondary to the health and parental-rights issues.

“Sure, there’s a moral concern,” she said. “But as a parent and a grandparent, my biggest concern is what the state is planning for our children.”

Joann Jaquez of Fort Worth, Texas, said she plans to ask her doctor about the vaccine for her 11-year-old daughter.

“If it’s something to help her not get cervical cancer then I would consider it, but I would like more information,” she said. “But I would not like to be told it’s mandatory for her to enter the sixth grade. I would like to make that decision myself.”

Arlington, Texas, pediatrician Maria Fisher said that parents are asking for the vaccine. About half of the pediatricians in Arlington are giving it, she said.

“It sounds like an excellent vaccine since the greatest cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus, and it’s preventable with the vaccine,” she said.

Fisher brushed aside the idea that the vaccine might encourage sexual activity, saying that girls can be exposed to the virus even if it is not their choice to be sexually active.

“With 1 in 4 women sexually abused, that’s another big reason the vaccine should be given,” she said.

The state will set aside $29 million to ensure that girls and young women up to age 21 without access to private health insurance can obtain the vaccine.

Krista Moody, a spokeswoman for the governor, rejected assertions that heavy lobbying by Merck representatives in Austin or that a campaign contribution from the company’s political action committee played any role in the decision to issue the order.

“This is strictly a health issue, not a political issue,” she said.