State debates vaccine

As students petition for University funding for the human papillomavirus vaccine, the Connecticut General Assembly is weighing whether to mandate it for all young girls entering sixth grade.

Connecticut is one of over a dozen states considering whether to add HPV vaccine, which protects against the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer, to the list of required vaccinations for young girls. Nationwide, the vaccine has been the subject of protest by parents’ rights groups and social conservatives who have said it may condone sexual activity amongst minors, although Connecticut’s legislation appears to not yet have attracted any vocal opposition.

The Connecticut General Assembly is currently considering four bills concerning the vaccine, the broadest of which would require all girls to be immunized before they enter the sixth grade. Others would provide coverage for the vaccine under the state’s low-income health plan, require the state Department of Public Health to establish standards for HPV immunization, and provide for an outreach campaign to promote awareness of the vaccine.

Public Health Committee Chair Rep. Peggy Sayers, a Democrat from Windsor Locks and a registered nurse, said the committee will hold a public hearing about HPV in the coming month. Thus far, there has not been a strong response either positively or negatively to the proposed legislation, Sayers said, though she supports the mandatory vaccination.

“We could eradicate cervical cancer through the vaccine,” she said. “As a nurse, I’m very supportive of any kind of a vaccine. But I’m not very clear what the general feeling is [about the proposal] … I’ll have a better idea once we have a public hearing.”

Rep. DebraLee Hovey, a Republican from Monroe and the sponsor of the bill, could not be reached for comment Monday. The General Assembly’s offices were closed in observance of Lincoln’s birthday.

The vaccine, Gardasil, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration last year and protects against four types of HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. But at $360 for a three-dose series, it is one of the most expensive vaccines ever produced. While the vaccine has proved controversial among conservatives, Texas became the first state to mandate HPV immunization earlier this month when Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican with a strong conservative track record, issued an executive order requiring the vaccination — and attracted harsh criticism for doing so.

“Never before have we had an opportunity to prevent cancer with a simple vaccine,” Perry said in a statement after signing the executive order. “While I understand the concerns expressed by some, I stand firmly on the side of protecting life. The HPV vaccine does not promote sex, it protects women’s health.”

Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell, meanwhile, plans to follow the General Assembly’s debate about the vaccine and “let the process play out,” said Adam Liegeot ’94, a Rell spokesman.

This winter, at least 29 states and the District of Columbia are considering some form of HPV legislation, including requiring the vaccine, funding it or educating the public about it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And while two states voted down bills requiring HPV vaccinations last year, there has been an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the vaccine here in Connecticut, said Joan Cagginello, president of the Association of School Nurses of Connecticut.

Because of the media attention and marketing that has publicized the vaccination since its FDA approval last year, many area parents have asked about the vaccine on behalf of their daughters, Cagginello said. Health professionals always promote immunizations in stressing prevention, she said, although the HPV vaccine may carry something of a stigma because it prevents against a sexually transmitted disease.

“It’s difficult to talk to parents about their 9-year-old to anticipate them being sexually active,” Cagginello said. “But really, if you were having a discussion, you really want to say, ‘This is for your 9-year-old so she can be protected against developing cervical cancer.’”

The Centers for Disease Control has recommended that all girls receive the HPV vaccination between the ages of 11 and 12. At least half of sexually active men and women will acquire a genital HPV infection at some point in their lives, according to the CDC.

In the Ivy League, Princeton University and Dartmouth College have recently announced they will provide some coverage for the vaccine under their student health plans. The HPV vaccine is not covered under this year’s basic Yale Health Plan, although the University said it will discuss the vaccine in its planning for next year’s health plan budget.

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