By LIZ AUSTIN PETERSON
The Associated Press
Saturday, February 3, 2007; 4:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas -- Some conservatives and parents' rights groups worry that requiring girls to get vaccinated against the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer would condone premarital sex and interfere with the way they raise their children.
By using an executive order that bypassed the Legislature, Republican Gov. Rick Perry _ himself a conservative _ on Friday avoided such opposition, making Texas the first state to mandate that schoolgirls get vaccinated against the virus.
Beginning in September 2008, girls entering the sixth grade will have to receive Gardasil, Merck & Co.'s new vaccine against strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV.
Perry also directed state health authorities to make the vaccine available free to girls 9 to 18 who are uninsured or whose insurance does not cover vaccines. In addition, he ordered that Medicaid offer Gardasil to women ages 19 to 21.
Perry, a conservative Christian who opposes abortion and stem-cell research using embryonic cells, counts on the religious right for his political base. But he has said the cervical cancer vaccine is no different from the one that protects children against polio.
"The HPV vaccine provides us with an incredible opportunity to effectively target and prevent cervical cancer," he said.
Opponents say Perry should have let the Legislature decide whether to impose a mandate.
"He's circumventing the will of the people," said Dawn Richardson, president of Parents Requesting Open Vaccine Education, a citizens group that fought for the right to opt out of other vaccine requirements. "There are bills filed. There's no emergency except in the boardrooms of Merck, where this is failing to gain the support that they had expected."
Texas allows parents to opt out of inoculations by filing an affidavit objecting to the vaccine on religious or philosophical reasons. Conservative groups say such provisions still interfere with parents' rights to make medical decisions for their children.
The executive order is effective until Perry or a successor changes it, and the Legislature has no authority to repeal it, said Perry spokeswoman Krista Moody. Moody said the Texas Constitution permits the governor, as head of the executive branch, to order other members of the executive branch to adopt rules like this one.
The federal government approved Gardasil in June, and a government advisory panel has recommended that all girls get the shots at 11 and 12, before they are likely to be sexually active.
Merck could generate billions in sales if Gardasil _ at $360 for the three-shot regimen _ were made mandatory across the country. Most insurance companies now cover the vaccine, which has been shown to have no serious side effects.
The New Jersey-based drug company is bankrolling efforts to pass state laws across the country mandating Gardasil for girls as young as 11 or 12. It doubled its lobbying budget in Texas and has funneled money through Women in Government, an advocacy group made up of female state legislators around the country.
Perry has ties to Merck and Women in Government. One of the drug company's three lobbyists in Texas is Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff. His current chief of staff's mother-in-law, Texas Republican state Rep. Dianne White Delisi, is a state director for Women in Government.
The governor also received $6,000 from Merck's political action committee during his re-election campaign.
A top official from Merck's vaccine division sits on Women in Government's business council, and many of the bills around the country have been introduced by members of Women in Government.
Merck spokeswoman Janet Skidmore would not say how much the company is spending on lobbyists or how much it has donated to Women in Government. Susan Crosby, the group's president, also declined to specify how much the drug company gave.