Council Tentatively Backs Mandatory HPV Vaccine

Council member David Catania speaks on behalf of a bill, supported 7 to 3 by the council, requiring immunization with the HPV vaccine for D.C. schoolgirls.
Council member David Catania speaks on behalf of a bill, supported 7 to 3 by the council, requiring immunization with the HPV vaccine for D.C. schoolgirls. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The D.C. Council moved yesterday toward requiring preteen girls in the District to get inoculated against a virus that can cause cervical cancer, despite some of the same reservations fueling a national debate.

The council agreed 7 to 3 to support a vaccination bill targeting the human papillomavirus, or HPV. Although the proposal faces a second and final vote in coming weeks, the margin yesterday portends likely passage. Critically to some supporters, it contains a provision allowing parents or guardians to opt out of the mandate.

If the initial endorsement of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) holds and he signs the measure into law, the District would be one of the few jurisdictions in the country to add the HPV vaccine to its school immunization schedule.

"We have to seize this opportunity to save our daughters from the scourge of HPV," co-sponsor Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) told colleagues.

Attempts to mandate the HPV vaccine have proven so controversial across the country that only one state has done so and two others, including Virginia, have passed legislation awaiting governors' signatures.

In Virginia, lawmakers approved a requirement in February targeting girls before they start middle school, but Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) wants to amend their action to make it easier for parents to opt out. The General Assembly, which would have parents submit a letter to the school to opt out, is to consider the change today.

In Maryland, backlash over a mass HPV immunization bill doomed its chances shortly after its introduction in January. Legislation that both chambers sent this week to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) would merely create a panel to study the HPV vaccine.

The D.C. Council's action came just hours after Children's Hospital finalized its position on the issue. The hospital's directors approved a recommendation that the three-dose Gardasil be mandatory for pre-adolescent and adolescent girls. However, the board said any mandates should include an opt-out provision and not take effect in the District or states for up to two years.

That time window, according to a Children's announcement, would allow for public information campaigns about HPV infections and cervical cancer, vigorous monitoring of the vaccine's safety and efficacy, and adequate funding for low-income families unable to afford the $360 cost.

Under the D.C. legislation, the series of shots would have to be administered before a student enrolls in sixth grade.

Girls could be excused for any reason, a no-questions-asked flexibility that some medical experts worry could decrease compliance with other vaccinations.

Yet the three council members who voted against the bill were not swayed by its exemption clause. Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) withdrew her backing and, like council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), argued that less-informed families would not know they had any right of refusal. Schwartz also expressed concern over the extent of Gardasil's testing, especially on younger age groups, before the federal government approved its use in June.

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