Council Votes for Girls' Vaccination

Nicole Smith, left, and Ashley Lewis, who favor mandatory vaccination for young women, listen to D.C. Council debate. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

The D.C. Council approved a requirement yesterday that young girls be immunized against a virus that can cause cervical cancer, despite protests from parents and controversy surrounding the vaccine.

The council addressed the debate by adopting amendments to postpone the implementation of the requirement for one year. Officials said they would launch an aggressive education campaign to inform the public about the vaccine and to make it easy for parents or guardians to opt out for any reason.

When school begins in fall 2009, girls entering the sixth grade must prove that they have received the vaccine that fights the human papillomavirus, or HPV, unless their parents or guardians excuse them. The legislation originally called for girls to be inoculated in 2008.

The D.C. law, if signed by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and approved by Congress, will be similar to legislation adopted in Virginia this month.

"We have a social obligation and a moral obligation to protect our daughters," said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who co-sponsored the legislation with council member David A. Catania (I-At Large).

When Cheh and Catania introduced the legislation in January, their colleagues immediately joined them. But initial support waned, and some council members began to question whether the council was acting too quickly on a vaccine approved less than a year ago by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Yesterday's vote was 7 to 3. Council members Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) dissented. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) abstained.

Schwartz said that the vaccine was too new and that the District should wait to see what effect the vaccine has on girls. "I don't have a comfort level with this yet," she said.

Faye Williams, who organized opponents under Parents and Citizens Committee to Stop Medical Experimentation in D.C., said she was "disappointed" by the vote. "Another sad day for D.C."

Opponents said residents who are illiterate or parents who do not carefully read documents would not understand how to opt out.

The vote drew about 50 opponents and supporters in T-shirts expressing their opinions. Opponent Chris Otten of the Statehood Green Party was escorted out of the council chambers and the John A. Wilson Building after he loudly disputed Catania's statement that the opposition was being fueled by misinformation about the vaccine.

"This is not a conspiracy theory," Otten said as security ushered him to an elevator. He pointed to reports that the vaccine has not been adequately tested on preteen girls.

Merck, the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the vaccine, has been criticized for lobbying legislators around the country to approve laws to require the vaccination -- a requirement that would result in significant profits from the immunization, which costs $360.

Catania said a federal vaccination program for children who are uninsured and underinsured will pay the costs for girls who cannot afford the vaccine.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company