The introduction of four bills seeking to limit state authority and restore exemptions regarding vaccinations has given further opportunity for parents and advocates to express opposition to a mandate issued in September by the Rhode Island Department of Health that requires 7th grade students to receive the HPV vaccination. Incoming 7th graders are required to receive one dose of the vaccine, and children entering 8th grade must get two doses.
According to the state Department of Health, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the nation, so common that nearly all who are sexually active get it at some point in their lives. The virus can disappear on its own and not pose any health issues, but in other cases can lead to cancers.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state health department call the vaccine “safe and effective,” and it’s been FDA approved. Joseph Wendelken, Public Information Officer for the state Department of Health, said the vaccine was incorporated into Rhode Island’s school immunization regulations since the state incorporates all CDC routinely recommended vaccines into the school immunization schedule as a matter of course. He also maintains that the vaccine is safe, effective, and well studied.
“HPV vaccine is very effective at protecting against a virus that causes various forms of cancer in both females and males,” he said. “HPV vaccine was extensively studied before being released, and it continues to be studied and monitored. It has consistently been found to be both effective and safe.”
Despite such reassurances from the Department of Health and CDC, those who oppose the mandate have cited their own research and concerns about the HPV vaccine.
Linda McLaughlin, a Warwick resident, is Vice Chair of the RI Alliance for Vaccine Choice. RIAVC has testified on behalf of some of the bills that introduced this session and works with state legislators and officials in attempt to eliminate the HPV vaccine mandate. McLaughlin said parents have a right to be informed that a religious exemption to the mandated vaccine is easier to obtain than a medical one, and feels this information should be made more accessible to parents.
RIAVC Chairperson, Deb O’Leary, doesn’t even know where to begin when asked about purported risks and side effects of the vaccine. She points to a vaccine insert that lists the most common adverse reactions as injection site pain, swelling, erythema (the University of Maryland Medical Center describes this as a skin condition usually caused by reactions to medications, infections, or illness), and headaches in girls and women in the aged 9 to 26; and injection site pain, swelling, and erythema in boys aged 9 to 26. But she also said she’s heard of more reactions that include fainting, seizures, and paralysis.
“Parents, please do your research,” she implores. “You have the right to informed medical consent.”
Wendelken said he couldn’t speak to specific incidents on specific side effects, as the state Department of Health does not track adverse effects (that happens on a federal level). However, he said most side effects are mild and don’t last long. Many who get the HPV vaccine have none at all, but some report mild side effects like having a sore arm from the shot for a day or two, he said.
“The most common side effects, such as soreness or a little muscle pain, are usually mild and go away on their own,” he said.
RIAVC is not the only organization dedicated to opposing the HPV vaccine mandate. Deborah Jennings, member of No HPV Mandate RI and a retired registered nurse from Middletown, aired many grievances in a letter to the editor that appears in today’s edition. She disagrees with children being required to get a vaccine for something that can’t be caught in a classroom and claims a lack of transparency when it comes to available exemptions.
“The R.I. Department of Health has mandated the series of HPV vaccines despite the fact that the virus is not communicable in a classroom setting,” she wrote in part. “There is a religious exemption in place but many parents are not aware of this and pediatricians and the schools are not forthcoming in disclosing this. There really is little informed consent.”
Wendelken notes that not all required vaccinations, like the one for Hepatitis B, are for diseases that can be caught in classrooms. That’s because the state’s school health regulations go beyond attempting to prevent the spread of illnesses within schools, he said.
“The aim of the regulations to keep children healthy and safe. In the case of HPV, we’re talking about keeping children safe from a virus that causes more than 30,000 cases of cancer every year in the United States,” he said.
Maddalena Cirignotta, a parent of three children and teacher at South Kingstown High School, said she’s worried about an “exorbitant” amount of aluminum in the vaccine. She also feels that doctors and the Department of Health can recommend whatever pharmaceuticals they’d like, but that they are overstepping their authority by mandating the HPV vaccine.
“As a witness to the epidemic of autoimmunity amongst our youth, I am extremely cautious in regard to my children’s health. It is both my right and responsibility to protect and advocate for them until they are able to do so on their own,” she said.
Wendelken could not speak to specific amounts of aluminum in the vaccine, but did say the amount of aluminum present in vaccines is low and is FDA regulated.
“Aluminum gels or aluminum salts are vaccine ingredients that have been used in vaccines since the 1930s,” he said. “Small amounts of aluminum are added to help the body build stronger immunity against the germ in the vaccine. Aluminum is one of the most common metals found in nature and is present in air, food, and water.”
In regards to questions about exemptions, Wendelken said parents could obtain both medical and religious exemption forms for their children at www.health.ri.gov/hpv. He also said parents can contact the Department of Health with questions or concerns at 222-5960.
Committee recommended the two House bills in question, H5919 and H5986, to be held for further study. Two bills on the subject also exist in the Senate, S0047 and S0489. The first was introduced in January, and a meeting on the latter was postponed after it was scheduled for hearing and/or consideration last month.