- Soon, Va. 6th graders may not need HPV vaccine (Photo: Associated Press)
Virginia is the only state that requires parents to consider protecting sixth-grade girls against developing cervical cancer later in life—just consider it. But that modest requirement may be lifted soon: Today, the Virginia House of Delegates approved legislation that would reverse a state law requesting that parents give their girls a series of vaccinations to protect against the transmission of the human papilloma virus, or HPV.
HPV, the leading cause of cervical cancer, has no cure or treatment, and condom use has a limited capability of preventing its spread, so preventative measures are key. In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that a newly-released vaccine against HPV be administered to all 11 and 12-year-old girls; in 2007, Virginia became the first state to actually require girls to receive the vaccine—pending parental approval, of course. (The District of Columbia has a similar arrangement).
The current law allows parents to opt-out for any reason, as long as they educate themselves on HPV's effects. "Because the human papillomavirus is not communicable in a school setting, a parent or guardian, at the parent's or guardian's sole discretion, may elect for the parent's or guardian's child not to receive the human papillomavirus vaccine," the law reads—"after having reviewed materials describing the link between the human papillomavirus and cervical cancer."
Plenty of Virginia parents are exercising their right to opt out: Only 17 percent of sixth-grade girls in the state received the vaccine this fall. Still, opposition to the 2007 law remains, centered on three arguments: Students shouldn't be required to receive the vaccine, as it's not communicable at school; the vaccination series is costly, around $360 for three injections; and the added protection may encourage girls to become sexually active at a younger age. According to the Associated Press, a major roadblock to laws promoting the vaccine are parental concerns that the vaccine "would promote promiscuity."
The first two arguments are reasonable; the third one isn't. I'm wary of any argument that boils down to, "if we eliminate the consequences of sex, there will be no consequences to having sex!" but this is a particularly weak stop on that line of reasoning.
As it stands, there are plenty of potential consequences to "promiscuity," and HPV is, frankly, pretty low on the list. Sexually active women are worried about becoming pregnant, contracting HIV, and getting uncomfortable and embarrassing STDs like herpes. The possibility that a virus that is untestable, not prevented by condom use, crops up in approximately 80 percent of women, and will potentially lead to cervical cancer much later on in life? Nobody really talks about those risks very often—sixth-grade girls particularly—and I'd challenge any legislator to find a single woman who delayed sex specifically in the interest of avoiding HPV. If anything, the existence of the HPV vaccine has been the galvanizing force in encouraging women and girls to actually care about the possibility of contracting HPV (boys, too—the HPV vaccine also helps prevent anal and penile cancer, and genital warts). Previously, there was simply not much any of us could do to prevent the virus. So we did nothing.
No, the HPV vaccine won't be the CDC-recommended medical treatment that steals your 11-year-old's virginity. She is, however, likely to become sexually active sometime, and almost as likely to contract HPV. "Reviewing materials" on that potentially lethal and largely preventable health risk to one's children? Sounds like a pretty reasonable requirement to me.