HPV Vaccine Mandate Draws Protests; Health Dept. Continues Public Meetings

Aug 17, 2015

Protestors are asking the state health department to abolish the requirement that all seventh graders receive the HPV vaccine, which can prevent cervical and other kinds of cancers. Parents can request an exemption. But the groups say they’re still opposed to the mandate. The health department has added additional community meeting dates to respond to public concerns.

Besides Rhode Island, only Virginia and the District of Columbia require the HPV vaccine. Rhode Island is the only state to require it for boys and girls, because HPV can lead to a variety of cancers in both genders.
Credit Immunization Action Coalition

A conservative think tank called the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity has joined forces with a group calling itself Rhode Islanders Against Mandated HPV Vaccinations to protest the state health department’s requirement.

Exemptions can be requested
But head of the Office of Immunization for the Rhode Island Department of Health, Tricia Washburn, says parents can request an exemption for medical or religious reasons. “And we looked at the religious exemption and there is some broad interpretation that would allow for someone with a deep conviction to not vaccinate their child," to use that exemption.

But Washburn says those parents miss the opportunity to protect kids from certain kinds of cancers, at a time when their immune systems are primed to respond best. 

Mode of transmission not a factor for vaccine requirements
Protestors also say there’s no reason to require a vaccine for a disease that isn’t technically spread at school. But Washburn counters that the state requires vaccines for other diseases, like tetanus, that aren’t spread at school.

“The mode of transmission for a disease is not a criteria for why a vaccine would become a required vaccine," says Washburn. "We look at vaccines as an opportunity to prevent vaccine-preventable disease. And by making them part of the school requirement, more kids will have access to these vaccines.”

Washburn says requiring routine immunizations is also a means of encouraging more adolescents to get regular check-ups, which sometimes drop off during the pre-teen and teenage years.

How Rhode Island adopted the HPV vaccine requirement
According to Washburn, here is the process by which a routine immunization becomes a state requirement:

  • The CDC approves the vaccine as a recommended routine immunization, after studying effectiveness, safety, and availability
  • Rhode Island's health department reviews the requirement, and convenes its vaccine advisory board (comprised of health care professionals)
  • Notice of a public hearing about the proposed requirement is sent to an email distribution list of "interested parties" (although Washburn acknowledges that notice is not widely publicized beyond this distribution list)
  • A public meeting is held, public comment taken and recorded
  • The department makes a decision and promulgates a new policy

More resources and information about HPV and the HPV vaccine

  • Only one other state, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, mandate the HPV vaccine as a condition for school entry. They only require the vaccine for girls. Rhode Island's mandate includes boys and girls.
  • You can find out more about Rhode Island's immunization requirements for all ages here. The health department's HPV page is here.
  • Learn more about HPV and how it's spread here.
  • Learn more about HPV-associated cancers here
  • For more information about this vaccine's safety and efficacy, read the latest updates from scientists on the CDC's Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices.