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Posted at 1:09 PM ET, 02/17/2011

Senate panel kills bill to end Virginia's HPV vaccine mandate

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Rosalind S. Helderman

A senate committee has killed a bill that would have ended Virginia's four-year-old mandate that girls receive the vaccine that protects against the human papillomavirus before enrolling in the sixth grade.

The vote was widely expected in the Senate's Education and Health Committee, which agreed to end action on the bill for this year on a 12 to 3 vote.

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.

Since then, only the District of Columbia has followed suit. Numerous other states have considered mandates but rejected them after emotional debates about side effects of the virus. Some conservatives also believe the vaccine encourages sexual activity since the virus is generally transmitted through sexual contact.

Both Virginia and D.C. offer liberal opt-out procedures to their mandates -- in Virginia, any parent can choose to forgo the vaccine simply by informing their school of their desire. And, in fact, large numbers of parents take that option, indicating a wariness with the medication.

In Virginia, just 17.3 percent of 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.

Del. Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Lynchburg), who sponsored the measure, told the committee that she believed families should decide with their doctors whether to vaccinate their children.

She said the fact that no other state has followed Virginia's example is a sign that the requirement was a mistake. She cited figures showing that some girls who receive the vaccination experience dangerous side effects and noted that since introducing the bill, she has heard from parents from all over the country who believed that their daughters had suffered ill effects from the drug.

She also cited testimony of some doctors who have urged caution and complained that vaccine manufacturer Merck had been too aggressive in pushing policy makers to approve vaccination mandates.

"There's not consensus among the doctors," Byron said. "How can lawmakers continue to intrude on these decisions that should be left to families when we don't even have consensus? ... The substitution of our judgment for the judgment of parents is exactly the kind of government intrusion that America is rejecting today in Washington."

Dr. Wendy Klein, deputy editor of the Journal of Women's Health, told the panel that the vaccination had been administered millions of times and has been determined to be safe by major medical organizations. She lauded the vaccination as the first known to prevent cancer.

"In my mind, there is not only not a safety issue, but I could not give this vaccine to the children of the Commonwealth quickly enough," Klein said. "Virginia is a shining role model in the realm of public health because we're trying to protect our kids, and in years to come women and men, from these cancers."

The same committee Thursday also killed several bills that touched on issues of abortion rights. Such bills pass the GOP-led House of Delegates each year and each year are ritualistically halted in the same Senate committee.

By Rosalind S. Helderman  | February 17, 2011; 1:09 PM ET
Categories:  General Assembly 2011, House of Delegates, Rosalind Helderman, State Senate  
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