Wave of Support for HPV Vaccination of Girls

By Susan Levine and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 12, 2007

The District, Virginia and Maryland are at the forefront of a growing nationwide effort to encourage or even require adolescent girls to receive the new cervical cancer vaccine -- the first vaccine ever developed specifically to prevent cancer.

In the seven months since the federal government approved the vaccine for human papillomavirus, or HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer, half a dozen states have introduced legislation that would mandate immunization of students by the middle school grades. Several others are making doses, which cost $360 for the full regimen of three injections over six months, available at no charge.

"It's red hot, coming fast," said former Maryland senator Gloria G. Lawlah, immediate past chairwoman of a national group of female state lawmakers who have pushed legislatures to increase public awareness of and testing for cervical cancer.

This week, the District became the latest jurisdiction to propose adding the vaccine to the list of shots girls would have to get before enrolling in the sixth grade. Yesterday, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) voiced his support, saying hearings to flesh out the program should satisfy parental concerns.

At least two similar bills were introduced last week in the Virginia General Assembly. And in Maryland, state Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) has prepared a bill that requires middle school vaccinations. Kelley said she expects strong support from teachers and female lawmakers.

"This is an issue that is cross-generational," she said.

HPV vaccination is being promoted across the country, in such states as California, South Dakota and New Hampshire. In New Hampshire, officials called the vaccine a major scientific breakthrough when they began offering it without charge to females 11 to 18.

"For goodness sake, how long in our lifetime have we prayed: If we can only have a vaccine against cancer?" said Kentucky state Rep. Kathy Stein (D), sponsor of a mandatory immunization bill filed there last week.

The attempts to require vaccination have been criticized by groups concerned that it might encourage promiscuity or infringe on parents' authority over their daughters' health care. Others oppose such efforts because of worries about vaccines in general.

But many organizations support the proposals, most of which would allow exemptions for religious, medical or philosophical reasons.

"We are dealing with a public health crisis," Pernessa C. Seele, head of Balm in Gilead, said yesterday. The group addresses health issues affecting African Americans and is teaming up with African American medical professionals to combat cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer affects nearly 10,000 women in the United States every year, killing more than a third of them. Minority and low-income women are most affected; African Americans die at a rate more than double that of white women.

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