Last week, at the CNN Tea Party Express debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry came under fire for his mandate as governor that required all girls and young women in Texas to be vaccinated against HPV, with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R–Minn.) exclaiming that “to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong.”
Ignoring Bachmann’s ill-informed tirade about side-effects of the vaccine and Perry’s connections with drug companies, the debate about the HPV vaccine that followed has raised an important question: Should governments be mandating the HPV vaccine? When considering the effects of HPV, how it has spread in the population, and the opt-out system proposed by Perry, the unequivocal answer to that question is yes – the government not only has the right to require that young women take the vaccine, it has a responsibility to do so as well.
In order to contextualize the debate, it is first necessary to understand how prevalent HPV is and why it is worth being vaccinated against.
HPV is widespread. According to the CDC, about 20 million Americans have HPV and another 6 million people will be newly infected each year, which, according to estimates means that about 50% of sexually active adults will be infected at some point in their lives. However, what’s problematic is not only that HPV is prevalent, but also that it causes an incredible 70% of all cervical cancer in the United States.
If HPV is indisputably bad, then why is there uproar against Perry’s plan to vaccinate young women?
One argument against the mandatory HPV vaccine follows the chain of reasoning that since HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, a mandatory vaccination against it would encourage young girls — the 12-year-olds that Perry’s plan would include — to be sexually active. While it is difficult to prove whether this claim would be true, it is reasonable to suggest that the possibility of contracting HPV in the future is not usually a factor that determines whether young people choose to be sexually active.
Further, and perhaps more importantly, the argument for mandatory vaccinations extends beyond the individual — the greater the proportion of the population that’s vaccinated, the lower the incidence of the infection. Therefore, mandatory vaccinations are a matter of public health, of reducing the number of people who carry and pass on the infection.
A second criticism of the mandatory vaccines from Bachmann and her supporters has been that the law infringes on parental rights, since the government is making the decision to vaccinate minors without parental consent.
However, in this particular case, parents did have a choice to opt-out of vaccinating their children. The benefit of the opt-out system is that while it enables parents to make a decision should they not want their children vaccinated, it also ensures that a majority of girls and young women are vaccinated; hence tackling the widespread incidence of the infection without denying parents their rights.
The question of mandating HPV vaccinations, then, is not one of parental rights or morality but one of public health. And Perry’s mandate was clearly in the interest of public health.
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