A Shot of Common Sense

Friday, March 9, 2007

VIRGINIA GOV. Timothy M. Kaine (D) brought some much-needed sense to the increasingly irrational national debate about immunizing girls and young women against a virus linked to cervical cancer. Mr. Kaine announced that he will sign a bill that will require shots for all sixth-grade girls unless their parents object to the inoculation. It properly balances parental rights and the government's role in promoting public health.

That Mr. Kaine had initial "qualms" about the legislation, even though it breezed through the General Assembly, is due no doubt to the recent controversy surrounding efforts to mandate use of the human papillomavirus vaccine. Public attitudes about the vaccine, as The Post's Susan Levine reported, have metamorphosed in the nine months since it won federal approval to rave reviews. Some people grew wary because of the misguided lobbying efforts, thankfully now abandoned, of the vaccine's maker, Merck & Co. Some are unsettled by the prospect of adolescent girls getting shots against a sexually transmitted virus.

Blurred in this backlash is the undisputed effectiveness of the vaccine, Gardasil, against strains of a virus that causes 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. It's an awful disease that in the United States kills an estimated 10 women each day. The vaccine is also potent against the damaging effects of venereal warts. Women should still get pap smears, since the vaccine is not effective against all strains of the virus.

Under Virginia legislation, as well as legislation pending before the D.C. Council, parents have the final say. They won't have to cite any reason, and no student will be kept out of school because her parents decided against the shots. Some parents may worry that though it passed rigorous testing with flying colors, side effects may emerge as the vaccine is used more widely. But so far, the only side effect of the vaccine (which is free of mercury and thimerosal) has been soreness at the site of injection. And a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that at least 25 million girls and women -- or about one in four from age 14 to 59 -- are infected with at least one type of HPV. One in seven have high-risk infections.

For a virus so widespread and potentially harmful, an opt-out regime, which will lead to higher rates of immunization than one asking parents to opt in, makes sense. For their part, government and health workers must ensure a good public information campaign and help make the vaccine affordable to the needy. It is, as Mr. Kaine said, just the right balance.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company