It seems that Virginia lawmakers are once again legislating how parents handle their children. Most recently, state legislators proposed changes in school dietary programs aimed at reducing the number of overweight and obese children attending Virginia schools. Some parents quickly rose up in arms fearing that the next step would be to ostracize children who didn’t conform or fit it into the weight standards established by the state. While that issue is still under heavy debate, lawmakers are now eyeing legislation that would require young girls to submit to a new drug that is supposed to prevent cervical cancer. While most parents do not, on the surface, have a problem with the preventative medication, they are fearful what consequences might occur for girls who opt not to submit to the vaccine. This is sure to once again stir further debate about the state’s right to legislate matters of parental control.
The drug in question, which was approved by the FDA in mid 2006 is touted as preventing the human papillomavirus. More often referred to as HPV, this is, in fact, a series of about 100 different strains of sexually transmitted viruses. It obviously includes the virus that is known to cause cervical cancer. HPV is relatively common. The CDC notes that about 80 percent of all women will contract at least one strain by the age of 50. However, in most cases a woman’s body is able to fight the infection, whereby it often disappears without the woman being aware that she had the disease. The proposed drug, called Gardasil, which was developed by Merck & Company, protects against four strains of HPV which cause approximately 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of cervical warts.
Under the proposed legislation, approved by the Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday, the first of a three-part series of shots would be required of girls entering into the sixth grade. This early age – – about 12 – – appears to be important for the drug to be its most effective. The FDA has approved the use of Gardasil on girls between the ages of 9 and 26. However, they also explain that the vaccine is most effective if used before the first sexual encounter occurs.
Parents that I spoke to felt that age 11 to 12 seemed early to assume that that girls were having sex. This concern might have some validity since recent findings published by the Family Foundation reported that the median age for a girl’s first sexual encounter is 17. One parent I spoke with wondered if, in fact, this might encourage some girls to assume that because they were vaccinated, it was safe to engage in sex.
Proponents of the legislation, however, noted that the drug must be administered in three shots over a six-month period in order for it to work. They point out that this would mean that parents would need to know at least six months in advance that their daughter was planning to have sex. Most felt that this advanced knowledge was unlikely. They further pointed out that each year about 3,700 women die from cervical cancer in the U.S., while another 12,000 are diagnosed with the disease. The drug – – Gardasil – – apparently has the capability of preventing women form ever getting cervical cancer that they felt made the delivery of the drug imperative.
State lawmakers are now forced to weigh the pros and cons of mandating what doctors believe to be a life-saving cancer drug against the injection of young girls with a vaccine that was only approved six months ago. Delegate John Welch, a republican from Virginia Beach urged the committee to slow down and do more research before recommending the vaccination. However, other members of the committee felt strongly that the time to act was now. Delegate Phil Hamilton of Newport News reminded that the law would not go into effect until 2009, which would allow Virginia lawmakers to continue to monitor any news about the drug that might effect the final outcome.
The bill must now go before the House Appropriations Committee where a price tag must be attached to the series of shots. The fiscal impact to the proposed budget is estimated at $1.4 million for the vaccine in the first year to cover those who can not afford to obtain the vaccination on their own.
The debate is sure to rage on over the course of the next couple of years as more is learned about the drug and any possible side effects. Some parents intend to fight the proposed legislation while others intend to keep an open mind at this point. “I just don’t like the idea of lawmakers sitting up there in Richmond and deciding how I should protect my daughter,” said one parent. “To me, it seems like the start of a process that might ultimately take away my rights as a parent.” She went on to express further concerns based on her’s and her daughter’s religion. However, lawmakers report that the proposed bill does make provision for both religion and unusual medical conditions.