“We’ve trusted these people for a very long time and that stops now,” Shawna Lawton, secretary of the Rhode Island Alliance for Vaccine Choice (RIAVC), says about the Department of Health.
For the current school year, the Department of Health (HEALTH) mandated all 7th graders entering public schools must have at least one dose of the HPV Vaccine.
The Human Papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection with nearly all sexually active persons are exposed to the virus at some point in their lives. In extreme cases, the virus can lead to serious health concerns such as cervical, anal, penile and other cancers.
The Centers for Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the shot, which was approved in 2006 for all 7th graders, male and female. According to the CDC, the vaccine has few side affects including soreness at injection site, mild headache, and possible nausea. Although the CDC recommendation stands as the basis for HEALTH’s own mandate, many parents have qualms not only with the vaccine itself, but also the department’s ability to invoke a mandate with so little restriction and oversight by a legislative body.
As parents began to get notifications throughout the summer preceding the most recent school year, there were some serious concerns and HEALTH conducted community meetings throughout the summer to educate parents on exactly what the vaccine is and why the state wanted to mandate it. Similarly, the department agreed no child would be excluded from school for not having received the vaccine and over the summer eased the availability of the religious exemption.
Linda McLaughlin and Joan Lowder, who both have grandchildren in 7th grade currently, rallied to fight the mandate. Now they, along with Lawton and Deb O’Leary, head RIAVC, which has nearly 2,600 supporters, according to their Facebook page.
The group is not trying to sway parents either way in terms of the HPV vaccine, or any vaccine for that matter. Rather, they advocate for informed consent and allowing parents to have a choice, especially when it comes to the HPV vaccine.
“We are not against vaccines; we aren’t ‘anti-vaxxers.’ We have members from all over the spectrum of that debate, but this is about choice and information,” McLaughlin said.
Joseph Wendelken, public information officer for HEALTH, said that because HPV leads to various cancers in both males and females the department wanted to ensure the vaccine was available to all students.
“Rhode Island’s school immunization regulation for HPV is expanding access to a vaccine that protects against this serious virus, while at the same time allowing any parent who is uncomfortable with HPV vaccine to opt his or her child out, no questions asked,” he said.
The RIAVC would argue that although HEALTH is providing an outlet for uncomfortable parents, it is not publicizing that information enough, although it has appeared in the Beacon several times in previous articles concerning the HPV vaccine.
McLaughlin said, “Even if the department has shown leniency and an option of choice, the information isn’t being shared. Schools aren’t letting students know, doctors aren’t telling patients. There needs to be more transparency.”
Lawton said her own children have received every recommended vaccine up until he HPV vaccine.
“I’ve been very complacent, I went along with it all and now I wonder why. I realize none of the risks were ever properly explained to me,” she said.
RIAVC is looking to the General Assembly to introduce legislation for several initiatives: to reverse the HPV mandate, reinstate the philosophical exemption, require HEALTH to hold three public meetings whenever there are changes to immunization standards, as well as restrict the authority of the department in mandating vaccines for non-communicable conditions.
RIAVC is seeking support from Rhode Island legislators. RIAVC says they have received bi-partisan support from both the Senate and the House, but as of yet no legislation has actually been drafted. Lawton has talked with Representative Justin Price and Senator Louis Raptakis. Because legislation has not been drafted, nonetheless introduced, HEALTH had no comment on the subject.
Lawton warned, “If we don’t rope in the Department of Health now, we are opening a can of worms for every new vaccines in the pipeline. We need to protect our rights as parents and advocate for our right to choice.”
Lowder has an issue with the fact that should there be a negative side effect with any child, no one is held responsible.
“Not the pharmaceutical companies, not the schools, not the state. If our children experience an adverse affect the family is the only one to take a penalty,” she said. “If you are going to mandate, force people to have this vaccine, there should be someone taking on the responsibility if something goes wrong and there just isn’t.”
She is concerned that the pressure for this vaccine isn’t coming just from HEALTH. All three women have heard stories of families asked to leave a pediatrician’s practice for refusing the vaccine as well.
Despite the apparent support for the RIAVC, Wendelken said that in this first year of the mandate Rhode Island has seen incredible success.
As of the first day of school in September, 72.5 percent of all 7th graders in the state had received the first dose of the vaccine. In comparison, nationally, 61 percent of girls 13 to 17 and 40 percent of boys 13-17 had received one dose in 2014.
He noted that Rhode Island’s numbers only account for September and that more students would have received the vaccine in the past several months.
Lawton, Lowder and McLaughlin believe the rates are so high because so many parents weren’t informed and in some cases still aren’t.
“People have come together,” Lawton said. “Before we were all running into walls with no idea where to turn. Now, The RIAVC offers education and resources, we offer knowledge.”
For more information or a parent information packet, detailing the vaccine, a religious and medical exemption, as well as an outline of possible legislation, visit RIAVC’s Facebook page or their website, www.vaccinechoiceri.com.
For more information on HPV, the vaccine or HEALTH’s mandate visit their website at www.health.ri.gov/diseases/hpv.