Finding a balance between public health concerns and respect for civil liberties can be an immensely challenging task, both politically and practically.
The latest example of this dynamic is being seen in Rhode Island through the recent outcry over the Department of Health’s (HEALTH) new requirement that seventh-graders begin receiving vaccinations against the human papilloma virus (HPV).
The state joins Virginia and the District of Columbia as the only places where the vaccine is presently mandated. The vaccine was first approved on the federal level in 2006.
Using social media, opponents of the mandate have rallied hundreds to their cause. Their reasons are varied. Some question the science behind the vaccine: the findings that it prevents oral, cervical and anal cancers caused by some strains of HPV, and that it is safe with no known side effects. Some also take issue with children so young being vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease.
The statistics associated with HPV can be staggering. The virus can vary significantly in terms severity, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly half of infections are high-risk and can cause the cancers listed above. The remaining infections are deemed low-risk, associated with genital and skin warts.
So common is HPV, according to the CDC, that between 80 and 90 percent of sexually active men and women will be infected at some point in their lives. Each year, there are approximately 14 million new infections.
Amid the recent controversy, the CDC has announced Rhode Island already ranks highest in the nation in terms of HPV vaccination for youths.
“There is still quite a range in HPV vaccine coverage across the country,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC immunization center, reportedly said during a news conference. “Rhode Island achieved the highest rate for first-dose HPV coverage among girls with 76 percent, while Kansas had the lowest rate at 38.3 percent.”
At present, those objecting to the mandated vaccine have a clear-cut means through which to opt out: by invoking a religious exemption for which there is absolutely no follow-up on the part of health officials or anyone else. There is also a provision for a medical exemption, although that requires a physician’s approval. State Sen. Joshua Miller had planned to pursue legislation eliminating the religious exemption, but has now decided against doing so.
Of course, civil liberties and personal choice must be considered and respected, and both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity have voiced opposition to the mandate. We agree there should be a choice.
However, given the state’s high rate of HPV vaccination and the deadly forms of cancer to which the virus is linked, we agree with health officials that vaccination is in the best interest of public health. We would urge all parents and guardians to closely consider their decision regarding the vaccination.
HEALTH has scheduled several informational forums in the coming weeks, starting with a 6:30 p.m. gathering at the Barrington Library on Wednesday and a Thursday forum at the same time at the HEALTH offices at 3 Capitol Hill in Providence. Forums will also be held on Aug. 11 at the Peace Dale Library, Aug. 12 at the East Greenwich Police Department, and Aug. 17 at the Cumberland Public Library. All the gatherings begin at 6:30 p.m.