After the Department of Health (HEALTH) mandated all 7th graders receive at least one dose of the HPV vaccine for school inclusion last summer, parents across the state were outraged.
There were public meetings held by both HEALTH and grassroots organizations such as the Rhode Island Alliance for Vaccine Choice (RIAVC) and the Rhode Island Against Mandated HPV. This back and forth led to some concessions. Students would not be excluded from school this year and it became increasingly easier to opt out of the vaccine, which prevents against one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, the human papillomavirus.
Now, though, those parental outcries have reached the State House and the House Committee on Health Education and Welfare heard two bills last Wednesday, both introduced by Representative Justin Price. One bill would institute a philosophical exemption from vaccines for non-communicable diseases and would require the department to hold public meetings every time a vaccine is being considered for a mandate.
Surprisingly, the department neither submitted written testimony nor did they have a representative speak at the hearing.
Joseph Wendelken, acting public information officer for HEALTH, said in an email that the department has not taken an official position on the legislation and had no comment on it, despite the bills having a direct affect on HEALTH’s operations.
On the other end, the hearing was packed with parents supporting the measures. Both bills were held for further study.
Price said he introduced the bills because parents have the right to make a decision for themselves and their families in opting out or in voicing their opinions at public hearings.
“This way it’s not just the Department of Health and the CDC making decisions for everyone,” Price said. “The public has the opportunity to have an input in what immunizations pass.”
Most of the concern stemmed from HEALTH’s apparent lack of transparency in moving forward with the mandate and its ability to do so with seemingly no oversight.
Christopher Black, a chiropractic doctor and father, argued that although there may be a lot of testimony from doctors and experts opposing his own views the beauty is that both sides have the opportunity to present their opinions and views, something that didn’t happen for the HPV mandate.
“We have no voice when it comes to the Department of Health,” he said. “We have given them that power and the right to do the same with the hundreds of vaccines in the pipeline if we don’t change it. We should be allowed an open forum just like we are today.”
Debra O’Leary’s biggest fear is that HEALTH can pass these mandates with no accountability should a child experience a serious side effect from a vaccine. She had no idea about the possibility of a mandate previous to its passing and believes that it wasn’t publicized enough to allow for parents to have an opportunity to learn more about the vaccine or to make a statement.
She said, “Parents deserve the right to informed consent. They are the most important figures in the care of a child, more than the state and more than the Department of Health. Where there is risk there has to be choice.”
With so many bills being heard, many of those who signed up to speak in opposition had already left. Before he left Peter Pogacar, a representative from the Rhode Island chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said he understood parents’ rights to choice, but sometimes it is just “a slap to the face of science.”
The debate seems to have caused a lot of contention between doctors and patients. Kristen Pierson testified that her pediatrician, who her family has been seeing for more than 12 years, dropped the Piersons immediately when she opted out of the HPV vaccine. She claimed that he said he was insulted she wouldn’t let her children have the vaccine, and the family is still struggling to find a new doctor.
“When the department was originally given this power we were afraid of highly contagious diseases like small pox or very dangerous ones like polio, but medicine has come a long way since then,” Pierson said. “HPV can only be spread sexually, and that shouldn’t be happening during the school day, so why wouldn’t they just recommend this vaccine?”
Although everyone who spoke was in support of the bills, some speakers believed that they didn’t do enough.
Both Aimee Gardner, director of the RI Against Mandated HPV, and Shawna Lawton, secretary of RIAVC, wanted to see additions to both bills, to repeal the HPV mandate completely but also to add stipulations to the public hearings HEALTH would have to hold.
Gardner argued there are currently no “checks and balances” in terms of the public hearings. There are no requirements should any possible mandate receive a lot of pushback from the community, the department could still do what it sees best as long as they hold a hearing.
Lawton said, “The General Assembly gave the department their power, without a lot of accountability, and I think it should be taken back, but this is a good start.”
For more information on the department’s mandate visit www.health.ri.gov/diseases/hpv.
For more information about RIAVC visit their Facebook page or their website at www.vaccinechoiceri.com
For more information on Rhode Island Against Mandated HPV visit their Facebook page.