The Department of Health (HEALTH) has hosted community meetings this month to reach out to the public concerning the new HPV vaccine mandate.
As of this school year, all 7th graders are required to have the vaccine, which would protect against HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection.
Although, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that all 7th graders get the vaccine, some parents are wary for their children. The trepidation led to the creation of the Rhode Islanders Against Mandated HPV Vaccines, which had their own community meeting with HEALTH.
Joseph Wendelken, communications specialist for HEALTH, said Tuesday that at the past two meetings in Barrington and Providence said the department has been listening to parents’ concerns and providing information on both the process of the mandate as well as the safety and “value” of the HPV vaccine.
For both meetings he said there were about 30 attendees, but many of them were at both meetings.
“We are answering all their questions and of course some people were there to voice their frustration,” Wendelken said.
He said that HEALTH was happy to listen and hoped they could ease their worries.
One of the resounding concerns from both parents and members of the Facebook group is the availability and ease of the religious exemption.
Forms for religious exemption should be available with every school’s nurse, Wendelken said.
The state has no follow-up to religious exemptions and do not require a signature from a faith leader. Medical exemptions are available from physicians.
“Our goal is to have as many children vaccinated against HPV as possible,” Wendelken said.
HEALTH does not want to see students excluded from school and does not anticipate schools will deny students for not having received the vaccine on the first day of school and “historically” there hasn’t been a problem like that.
Wendelken said for those students who have not received the immunization, school nurses will be working with parents about their options.
The Department of Education has been working alongside HEALTH. Barbara Cottam, chair for the Board of Education, said RIDE would continue to work with HEALTH and their interest is in keeping children in school.
“We are in constant communication with the Department of Education,” Wendelken said. “We are on the same page. Our shared goal is to see students in school, learning, thriving and healthy.”
Linda McLaughlin, co-founder of the Rhode Islanders Against Mandated HPV Vaccinations, said she was happy to see the religious exemption is still available and parents know it is an option for their children. Still, she said she and other members of the group are concerned moving forward.
“We are uncomfortable with how this was done and that the Department of Health has the authority to mandate this without going through our elected officials,” she said.
According to McLaughlin, the group has been working with the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a self-described “public policy think tank.”
Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the center, said the center is helping bring some of the “grassroots” movements together for a rally preceding the final HEALTH public forum at the Cumberland Public Library. He said the center isn’t advising whether or not families should get the vaccine, only that there shouldn’t be a mandate and parents should have the choice.
“They should make these decisions with informed consent, not have it mandated over their heads,” he said.
Although the center is not against all vaccines, the HPV immunization does not protect against a “public communicable disease” but rather is only transmitted sexually.
Stenhouse said, “This is a private health issue, not a public one.”
The center has called on Governor Gina Raimondo to do away with the mandate before the beginning of the school year or at least have an easy and publicized “opt out option.” Stenhouse is also calling for more restrictions on the director of HEALTH’s power.
“There was no legitimate public debate,” he said. “This is poor public policy. We aren’t being presented the other side of the coin.”
The final community meetings will be held Monday, August 17 at the Cumberland Public Library at 1464 Diamond Hill Rd., Cumberland from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
For more information on the mandate visit www.health.ri.gov/hpv.