Beginning this school year, all private and public schools in Rhode Island will require seventh-graders to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus linked to various genital cancers, particularly cervical cancer, in women.
Unless parents seek an exemption for medical or religious reasons, students must receive the vaccine or they will not be admitted to school. Linda Borg of The Providence Journal writes that Rhode Island will become the third jurisdiction, including Virginia and Washington, D.C., to make the vaccine for HPV, the human papillomavirus, mandatory.
Already some parents are voicing concern, saying the mandate is an intrusion by the government into private matters. They also argued that the vaccine has side effects that can be serious. But the Chief of the Office of Immunization for the Rhode Island Department of Health, Tricia Washburn, said it had been properly studied by the CDC, and no safety concerns had been found. She added that because HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the US, with 14 million new infections each year, immunization is very important.
"The bottom line is that HPV is the most sexually transmitted disease in the U.S." she said. "We are interested in protecting the public health. We feel it shouldn't be treated any differently than any of the other vaccines recommended by the CDC."
Washburn says there is already a high rate of participation in the HPV vaccination program with 75% of all female teenagers in Rhode Island receiving one dose in 2013, although the recommendation is three doses at regular intervals. Any students who have not been vaccinated will be vaccinated as eighth-graders in the fall of 2016 and ninth-graders in the fall of 2017.
Parents who are critics of the vaccine have joined together in a group called Rhode Islanders Against Mandated HPV Vaccinations, as well as starting a petition drive on Moveon.org aimed at having the regulation repealed.
"Our main concern is this should not be a mandatory vaccine," said Linda McLaughlin, 56, a Warwick grandmother who started the petition. "It's not like the measles. It's not an airborne disease where you're going to catch it from another child. There are a lot of concerns that the vaccine hasn't been tested long enough. Parents feel they should have the right to choose whether their child gets the vaccine."
Rhode Island incorporates all CDC-recommended vaccines into the state's school immunization regulations, so adding the HPV vaccine was a foreseeable move. The Associated Press reports, however, that Christy Ciesla, a doctor of physical therapy who specializes in women's health in Providence, said there was no solid information to prove that this vaccine prevents cancer.
Ciesla said in a study of 86,000 children, the vaccine had prevented only some abnormalities that could lead to cancer. The state has said that parents will be given more information and will have their questions answered at hearings which will take place in August. Ciesla added in an interview with Rebecca Turco of WLNE-TV that she would move out of the state if her right to opt out of the vaccination were taken away.
Linda Borg of the Providence Journal also reports that not only has the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity announced their concern concerning what they call "the privacy of families", but Gary D. Alexander, former Secretary of Health and Human Services for Rhode Island and adjunct scholar for health issues to the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, disagreed as well.
"Not only are the FDA approved vaccines for HPV relatively new and not vetted to the satisfaction of many in the medical community, they have been cited as the cause of many injuries, health complications and even death in some cases. Parents and the public have every right to be concerned about their children's health," he said. "The state has not provided a proper public forum to discuss these concerns with parents."