Virginia House passes bill to end HPV vaccine mandate for girls in sixth grade

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 21, 2011; 11:43 PM

RICHMOND - The Virginia House of Delegates approved a bill Friday that would eliminate the state's 2007 requirement that girls receive the vaccine against the human papillomavirus before enrolling in the sixth grade.

Virginia was the first state in the country to mandate that girls receive the vaccine against HPV, which causes genital warts and can cause cervical cancer, after a federal advisory panel suggested routine vaccination for 11- and 12-year-olds in 2006.

After emotional debates in several states since, including suggestions that vaccinations would encourage girls to have sex, only the District of Columbia has followed Virginia and required the vaccine. Both jurisdictions offer liberal opt-out policies that allow parents to decline to have their daughters vaccinated.

The bill to eliminate Virginia's mandate is unlikely to be approved by the Democratic-controlled state Senate. But the House's strong rejection of the vaccine requirement - just four years after it was approved overwhelmingly in the same chamber - is a sign of public uneasiness with the vaccination and of the resonance of arguments about government overreach in a state with an active tea party movement.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease and at least half of all sexually active people will acquire the virus in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus is the main cause of cervical cancer and can also cause other less common forms of cancer.

The FDA has approved two HPV vaccines, both of which the CDC recommends as safe and effective. They are most effective if administered before a girl becomes sexually active, experts say.

The Republican-led House adopted the bill 61 to 33 Friday, after a lengthy and impassioned debate that chipped away at the usual partisan lines Thursday.

Supporters of lifting the mandate cited data from the CDC and the New England Journal of Medicine that showed risks of adverse reactions to the vaccine. They said parents, not the government, should decide whether girls should be vaccinated.

"We just want to make sure parents are evaluating the risks of what they're giving their daughters, and not a legislative body," said Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Lynchburg), who is sponsoring the measure, House Bill 1419.

The fact that so few other states have followed Virginia's lead on the issue should give legislative leaders pause, Byron said.

"The medical community is still undecided," she said.

Supporters of lifting the mandate also reminded lawmakers that the measure passed in 2007 with a good amount of lobbying from the vaccine's manufacturer.

Del. Christopher P. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), an obstetrician and gynecologist, spoke at length in opposition to his fellow Republican's proposal. Citing other medical data, and his professional experience, Stolle said that removing the mandate would mean that as many as 1,300 more women a year would die.

He said that a vaccinated population offers benefits even to those who are not vaccinated because widespread immunization reduces the circulation of the virus in the rest of the community.

Since vaccine mandates were enacted in the District and Virginia, the rates of parents choosing to opt-out has been extremely high in both areas. In Virginia, just 17.3 percent of all eligible girls had received the first of three vaccinations, as envisioned by the law, at the start of this school year. Only 23 percent of this year's eligible sixth-graders in the District have received the vaccine.

A spokesman for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said he has not taken a position on the issue and will review the legislation if it passes the General Assembly.

Byron said she thinks the rise of the tea party and its emphasis on health issues helped focus attention on the issue in the House.

"People are more alert to these issues," Byron said.

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