PROVIDENCE, R.I. – When Rhode Island seventh graders start school next month, the state's Department of Health will require they be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, over the protests of parent groups.
The state follows Virginia and the District of Columbia in requiring the HPV vaccine for school children, along with vaccinations for mumps, measles, polio and other diseases.
Rhode Island's move comes almost a decade after an arm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2006 recommended the vaccine for all girls aged 11 to 12, a recommendation it has since extended to boys of the same age.
Some two dozen states have discussed mandating the vaccine, but most efforts have failed following opposition from groups that argued that parents, rather than schools, are best placed to make decisions about their children's healthcare.
"They're trying to take away my choice as a parent," says Shawna Lawton, an organizer of Rhode Islanders Against Mandated HPV Vaccinations. "How can they require this? It's not a disease that's communicable in classrooms."
Rhode Island legislators never debated the issue because an existing law incorporates all vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into the state's school immunization regulations.
Republican state Representative Justin Price said the legislature could review the issue next year.
"I intend to file legislation that will put the power back in parents' hands," Price said.
HPV can cause genital warts and cervical cancer, as well as other forms of cancer. There are two commercially available vaccines. Opponents contend that not enough is known about their safety. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first HPV vaccine in 2006 and the second in 2009.
The CDC says the vaccine is recommended for children ages 11 to 12 because it allows them to develop an immune response before becoming sexually active.
State health officials this month conducted a series of informational meetings across the state to tell parents about the vaccine requirement. In some communities, most of those attending were protesters carrying signs with slogans such as "My child, my choice."
The state Department of Health said schools will provide families with medical and religious exemption forms for parents who object to the vaccine. Parents are not required to write their faith on the religious exemption form.