SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Parents at a public informational session Tuesday night at Peace Dale Library voiced opposition to the state mandate requiring seventh-graders in all state public and private schools to receive the human papillomavirus virus vaccines. Rhode Island is the second state to adopt such a mandate, behind Virginia. The District of Columbia requires it as well.
One parent said she is being “bullied” into vaccinating her child against HPV. Others echoed this sentiment, saying, “We are being pushed to do this,” and “We should have the right to choose,” and asking, “How much is Merck [the pharmaceutical company that produces the vaccine] going to make off this?”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the vaccine, and in turn, the state Department of Health includes all CDC-recommended vaccines in school immunization regulations. There are three vaccines in the series – Cervarix, Gardasil and Gardasil 9 – which are administered over a six-month period. Rhode Island has the highest rate of first-dose coverage among girls in the nation, with 76 percent vaccinated, according to the CDC.
HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cancer in both men and women and is the leading cause of cervical cancer in women. It is spread by close skin-to-skin sexual contact. Each year, more than 27,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with cancer caused by HPV, according to the state Department of Health. There are more than 150 strains of the virus, but the majority of cervical cancers in women are caused by two strains. The infection is common; it is estimated more than half of the U.S. population will be exposed to it during their lifetime, according to the health department. Most new cases occur in individuals ages 15 to 24.
The vaccines protect against four of the 150-plus strains of HPV. Two of those strains most commonly cause cancer, and two others cause genital warts. They have been available in Rhode Island since 2007. The series is recommended to begin at age 11 or 12, before most are sexually active, which is why the health department mandated the vaccine for seventh-graders, according to Ailis Clyne, medical director for the state Department of Health. Women and men can be vaccinated until age 26 and studies show the vaccine remains effective for eight to 10 years, Clyne said.
“The motivation to improve the HPV vaccination rates in Rhode Island is a motivation to reduce the cancers that are directly related to the HPV virus,” Clyne said, during the forum. “Since the introduction of the HPV vaccine in this country, there’s been a reduction of 56 percent in infections among teenage girls.”
The regulation said seventh-graders who do not get the vaccine will not be allowed to attend school beginning in the fall, unless their parents sign an exemption for medical or religious reasons. Clyne said there is no enforcement method established to prevent unvaccinated children from attending school and told parents those children would not, in reality, be forced out of school.
“We don’t want people to feel like they have been bullied,” Clyne said. “The goal of the Department of Health is not to exclude children from school. No child will be excluded from school for not having received the HPV vaccine.”
Clyne told parents who oppose the vaccination to submit a signed religious exemption form to their school. She said the health department interprets the religious exemption “broadly.” Some parents said signing the form for “religious” reasons – when a religious reason isn’t actually present – seemed disingenuous.
“I will be teaching my children that it’s OK to lie,” one mother called out.
“I haven’t heard anyone tonight against the vaccine for religious reasons,” one man said. “Our oppositions are philosophical. Are you saying we need to lie on a form submitted to the government? I think that’s unacceptable.”
A Facebook group has been formed to oppose the mandate; the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has said telling unvaccinated students they cannot attend school is “an extremely severe penalty” and the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity has opposed it on grounds it infringes on parental rights, is not a public health issue, is a special interest handout for Big Pharma, and that the mandate lacked governmental transparency. It also questioned the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine.
During the forum, the atmosphere was tense among the more than 40 attendees. Opponents cited reasons for their concerns, the most common of which were potential side effects and some of the vaccine’s ingredients, particularly aluminum, which is used to enhance the effectiveness of the drug.
“Including clinical trials and post-vaccine studies, what we do know is that there have been no side effects from the HPV vaccine that are different [side effects] from other vaccines,” Clyne said. “The most common side effects are redness, pain, swelling, headache and the possibility of fainting. The most common side effects are mild and are typical for vaccines ... There have been no known proven deaths related to the HPV vaccine in the United States.”
Parents disagreed with Clyne’s statement, reading statistics from various sources they claimed show serious effects, including auto-immune disorders and death. One woman at Tuesday’s meeting cried as she claimed her daughter developed a seizure disorder after receiving the vaccine.
“My daughter’s life is changed,” the woman said. “If you want to know what an adverse effect is, look at my daughter. They’re not telling people what happens when your daughter gets the shot. Twelve days [after the vaccine] my daughter can’t move, she can’t walk.”
Some parents said they have felt “pressured” by school officials and pediatricians, and claimed they were unaware of the religious exemption.
“I have custody of my nephew, and when I went to the pediatrician for his 12-year appointment, the doctor was very aggressive about this vaccination,” one woman said. “I didn’t know there was a religious exemption. I personally am raising my kids to be sexually pure. [The doctor] said ‘congratulations, mom, let me know how that works out for you.’”
Some argued that because HPV is sexually transmitted it would not be spread directly between students during the school day, and therefore the vaccine should remain a parent’s choice.
The vaccine would not be given without parental permission, Clyne said.
“I’m not an ‘anti-vacc’ person,” a mother said. “I’ve vaccinated my children for other diseases, like polio. This is a whole different level of overstepping boundaries between parents, their doctors and the government.”