Should Minnesota mandate cancer vaccine?

HPV vaccine
Gardasil, a new cervical cancer vaccine developed by Merck. It was approved by the FDA in 2006 to prevent cervical cancer, by blocking two forms of the human papillomavirus which cause 70 percent of all cervical cancer cases.
Photo by Russell Kirk/Merck & Co. via Getty Images

Linda Schauer says she's trying to determine whether her teenage daughter should be vaccinated against the human papilloma virus. The Minneapolis resident says her doctor recommended the vaccine, but she's not sure if it's safe and effective.

"I question every medicine. I question it when they give me a prescription, so I just feel there are more questions that need to be asked about it. And more of a guarantee on how safe this is," says Schauer.

Rep. Erin Murphy
Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, supports a requirement that 12-year-old girls be given the HPV vaccination.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Schauer says she'll make the decision after talking with her daughter and her doctor.

Some state lawmakers want to make Schauer's decision easier for her. They're pushing legislation that would require all 12-year-olds be vaccinated for the sexually transmitted virus known as HPV.

Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, says she supports the bill. Murphy, a nurse, says it protects against the four strains of HPV that cause 70 percent of cervical cancer cases.

"It is smart for us to prevent disease. And I think we have discovered that the virus leads to cancer, and that cancer for young women can put an end to their reproductive life, and could end their lives potentially. I think it's really important that we prevent that, and we know how," says Murphy.

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The bill would require the three-shot regimen be included in the slate of vaccines that students already get. Murphy says the bill would allow parents to opt out of the vaccination requirement.

"There are questions about why we should be rushing, in our Legislature, to promote something that we really don't know enough about yet."

Minnesota is one of about 20 states that are currently debating whether the vaccine should be mandated. In Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle recently offered a similar proposal. The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, went a step further and instituted such a requirement without seeking legislative approval.

Some critics worry the inoculation has not been fully vetted since it gained federal approval last June.

Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, says she's worried about the side effects of the vaccine, and whether there will be any long-term effects on those who get it.

"There are just questions about why we should be rushing, in our Legislature, to promote something that we really don't know enough about yet," says Clark.

Clark is also concerned that officials with the drug company Merck have been heavily lobbying female lawmakers to require the shots. Merck sells Gardasil, one of the HPV vaccines now on the market. The Wall Street Journal estimates Merck would see billions in annual revenue if several states pass the bills into law.

Merck officials could not be reached for comment for this story. But the company has been aggressive in its marketing, running TV ads like this one.

Rep. Laura Brod
Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague, says the vaccine proposal is a classic case of government overreaching.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"Each year in the U.S., thousands of women learn that they have cervical cancer. I could be one less. One less statistic," says a woman in the ad.

Rep. Linda Slocum, DFL-Bloomington, says she's pleased to see a broader discussion about the vaccine and cervical cancer. Slocum says she supports the bill because every girl, not just those with good health coverage, should be protected from the threat of cervical cancer.

"I don't just want the white, middle-class concerned parents to make sure their daughters don't get it. Everybody should have that option," says Slocum.

Others say they don't think it's the government's role to mandate a vaccine for a sexually transmitted virus. Social conservatives are also worried that a vaccine requirement could condone premarital sex.

Others, like Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague, say the vaccine is a case of government overreach. She says vaccines for polio and the mumps prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

She says the HPV vaccine is different because it prevents a virus that's spread by risky behavior. Brod says parents, not the Legislature, should decide when and if children get vaccinated.

"I think it could send a mixed message to kids, and that's why I think it's much better to have parents being able to make that decision," says Brod. "That way, not only are they giving their child, their young girl, this vaccine, but they can also have a conversation with them about the disease in general."

An official with the Minnesota Health Department called the HPV vaccine effective, and says the department recommends health care providers give the vaccine to girls.

But the official says the department has not taken a position on requiring the vaccine, because of concerns about the cost, the vaccine's availability and the expected financial burden on school districts.

Hearings on the bills have not been scheduled in either the House or Senate at this time.