A bill introduced Thursday in Topeka would require all sixth-grade girls to be vaccinated for a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer - a killer of 3,700 women nationwide each year.
The bipartisan group of Kansas House members who sponsored the bill have added Kansas to a list of states - including Virginia, New Jersey, California, Georgia, Texas, Kentucky and Michigan - where legislators are considering similar measures.
Rep. Delia Garcia, D-Wichita, is the lead sponsor of the bill that would add the vaccine for the human papillomavirus, known as HPV, to the list of inoculations required for sixth-grade girls attending Kansas public schools.
Nationally, proponents have cheered it as a way to help institute an important medical breakthrough in preventive medicine. In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, which is made by Merck & Co. Kansas University was a test site for the vaccine in 1999 and administered it to 60 students.
"It's one of the real significant developments in disease prevention that has occurred in decades," said Henry W. Buck, a Lawrence gynecologist who has retired from KU's Student Health Services.
Buck led the Gardasil testing at KU and serves on Merck's advisory board but is not employed by the drug company.
The vaccination has been controversial here and elsewhere because the drug was approved only nine months ago and some say it could lead teens toward more promiscuous lifestyles.
"I don't think it's promoting promiscuity," Garcia said. "It's taking a stand to eliminate cervical cancer."
In 2005 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 20 million people in the U.S. had human papillomavirus. There are many types of HPV. Some cause no harm; others can cause diseases of the genital area. For most people, the virus goes away on its own. When the the virus does not go away, it can develop into cervical cancer, precancerous lesions or genital warts.
According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that is the leading cause of cervical cancer. KDHE said doctors currently think that more than 90 percent of cervical cancer is caused by HPV.
Issue of mandates
Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, chairman of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, said the issue is whether the state should mandate that all sixth-grade girls be vaccinated.
"I think that question needs very careful thought, particularly from the standpoint of what is the role of the state versus parental involvement," said Barnett, who was the GOP's unsuccessful nominee for governor last year. "At this time, I think that decision is best made between the parent and the physician, along with, of course, the patient, even though it's a sixth-grade girl."
Barnett, a physician, called the vaccine "very important" and said he was concerned about sexually transmitted infections.
Bruce Passman, deputy superintendent of Lawrence public schools, said Thursday he would need to research the bill before commenting.
Lawrence parents seem to have a mixed reaction to the legislation.
"I think people just get really hung up because it's about sex and a sexual organ. It's really just a vaccination about kids that protects against cancer," said Colleen Lignell, who has a daughter in junior high school.
Judy Gilman, who also has a daughter in junior high, was not sold on the idea.
"I'd like to see a time frame elapse where there aren't any problems that show up before they start mandating it. It's too premature," she said.
In late 2006, Michigan was one of the first states to consider a mandatory HPV vaccine. After a bill passed the Michigan Senate, John Stahl, a Republican member of the House, led a group to defeat it.
"We don't want them using our children as guinea pigs," Stahl said Thursday, although legislation has been reintroduced there this session.
In Texas, a parental group has asked for the vaccine's efficacy, safety and cost to be examined.
Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, talks about a bill to require HPV vaccinations for sixth-grade girls
"What they are proposing is vaccinating a bunch of healthy girls that are responsible and that do come from good homes for the benefit of irresponsible people," said Dawn Richardson, a co-founder of Parents Requesting Open Vaccine Education.
Also opposed to mandatory vaccinations is the American College of Pediatricians, a conservative group of physicians. It has commended the research advancements but opposes legislation requiring HPV vaccinations to attend school.
Buck, the retired Lawrence gynecologist, said he would favor a mandatory vaccination based on several reasons, including the prevalence of 1 million new cases of genital warts per year. He said he was astounded at the 98 percent efficacy rate of the drug in the more than 40,000 people who participated the trial period worldwide.
"The more people that get vaccinated, the less risk there is of transmission," he said.
Buck also said it was reasonable to require the vaccine due to the risks of date rape. He also touted Gardasil's safety and dismissed concerns about side effects.
"If you are against the HPV vaccine, it's kind of like being against mom and apple pie," Buck said.
Garcia, the main sponsor of the Kansas bill, said it does contain an opt-out provision for "medical, moral or philosophical reasons."
Gardasil costs $360 for three injections ($120 each) given over a six-month period. Merck says Gardasil will guard against four types of HPV - two that cause 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and two that cause 90 percent of genital warts cases.
Garcia said some community clinics in Kansas have it available if private insurance doesn't cover it. She also thinks federal dollars soon will be available to help defray the costs.
The vaccine would be costly to some families, said Charlene Bailey, public information officer for State Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger. Praeger, of Lawrence, has not seen the bill and was not ready to comment about whether insurance companies would pay for the vaccinations.