Commentary

Kudos to Gingrey For Fighting Mandatory HPV Shots

By Sigrid Fry-Revere
This article appeared on Examiner.com March 29, 2007.
In an ever-increasing number of states, federal funding and corporate self-indulgence have teamed up in the interest of forcing middle schoolers to take a vaccine they don’t need. At last, a lone congressman has had the sense to say enough is enough.

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., recently introduced a bill to prohibit the use of federal funds for implementing mandatory state vaccination programs against human papillomavirus, or HPV. The vaccine in question is Gardasil, which protects against four types of HPV, two of which are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. The FDA approved Gardasil last year for use against HPV in females ages 9 to 26. With a price tag of $360 for a series of three shots, Gardasil is one of the most expensive vaccines on the market.

Both whether such a vaccine should be mandated and the value of administering it in the first place have come under scrutiny. Gingrey’s legislation would inject some honest discussion into a debate that has been skewed by financial interests, both on the part of state governments and vaccine companies.

Gingrey, who is an OB-GYN, stated, “I understand the importance of protecting Americans from sexually transmitted diseases, and I applaud the development of an HPV vaccine. But for states to mandate vaccination for young women is both unprecedented and unacceptable.”

The proper role of states, Gingrey said, is to “require vaccinations for communicable diseases, like measles and the mumps. But you can’t catch HPV if an infected schoolmate coughs on you or shares your juice box at lunch. Whether or not girls get vaccinated against HPV is a decision for parents and physicians, not state governments.”

As Gingrey so aptly points out, the efforts to pass mandatory HPV vaccination laws are “unprecedented and unacceptable.” But then, why is there such a huge push to pass such laws?

State governments and Merck, the patent holder on the only HPV vaccine currently on the market, both have good reasons for seeking mandatory vaccination — and they have little or nothing to do with the merits of the vaccine.

The lure of free money from the federal government has certainly influenced some state legislators. When a reporter asked Giovanni Casanova, an aide to Florida state Sen. Mike Fasano, why Fasano is arguing so strongly in favor of mandatory vaccination, Casanova said, “So that Florida can get more money from the federal government to help pay for vaccines. …”

According to state records, Merck’s lobbying efforts to convince lawmakers to make its HPV vaccine mandatory total $500,000 in New York , $40,000 in Virginia, and $150,000 to $250,000 in Texas.

Merck refuses to reveal what it has spent lobbying for Gardasil, but with time its contributions in other states will undoubtedly also become public. Whatever the eventual total, there is a great deal of money at issue, and it is self-evident that no one spends that kind of money unless they anticipate huge financial gains.

It’s time for state legislatures to stop letting money do the talking and listen to their consciences. The HPV vaccine is new, expensive and relatively untested. It may have unknown or unintended consequences. In 1976, the government mandated swine flu vaccinations. Fewer than half the population was vaccinated and the vaccine ended up killing more people than the flu.

Finally, only last week, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the vaccine we gave many of our children against chickenpox has an ever-growing break-through rate and vaccinated children who are getting ill are being struck much harder by the disease than those who were never vaccinated.

So kudos to Gingrey. With all that we don’t know, and what little we do, parents, not states, should be weighing the costs and benefits of vaccinating their children against HPV.

Sigrid Fry-Revere is director of bioethics studies at the Cato Institute.