Vaccine a question of health, not morality

In considering whether to make a vaccine that immunizes girls against human papillomavirus (HPV) mandatory, lawmakers should decide solely on its merits for protecting the public health. Instead, the issue seems to have been partially obscured by some flimsy arguments about parents’ rights.

The bill, currently pending before the Assembly, would require girls entering seventh grade to be immunized against HPV, the virus responsible for cervical cancers and genital warts.

Opponents of the bill believe it would take away a parent’s right to be the primary decision-maker regarding their child’s health and send a bad message regarding promiscuity, since HPV is transmitted sexually.

In reference to the first of those assertions, the idea of a school making health-related demands on its students is nothing new. Athletes are routinely required to pass physicals to participate in sports.

Many other vaccines, such as those for measles and mumps, are required for students, but an uproar is rarely, if ever, heard about those requirements.

What makes this situation different is that some people are making assumptions about the message this supposedly sends regarding teens and sex.

First, no 12- or 13-year-old girl is going to follow the state Assembly and make choices about their sexuality based on the way the Assembly votes.

If those children are sexually active at such a young age, they will be regardless, as was acknowledged by Sam Thomp-son, one of the Assembly’s more conservative voices.

Second, it is doubtful that this vaccine will provide any false sense of security to the youths. True, sex education courses teach students about genital warts, but that’s just one of many sexually transmitted diseases students must learn about.

Ask any teenager what they fear most regarding sexual activity and they’ll probably say HIV or unplanned pregnancy, and this vaccine is powerless against those issues. If passed, in time we doubt many girls will even think much about what they are being injected with. It will be just one more shot among the many they dread getting through the years.

The argument before the Legislature should be about whether HPV is a prevalent enough health threat to mandate a vaccine. It may not be.

If there is research that indicates the treatment is ineffective or that it is not safe in terms of long-term side effects, then this proposal should be scrapped.

However, this should remain a debate about science and public health, not morality.