Texas Governor Sparks Controversy over HPV Vaccine

Earlier this month, Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued a highly controversial executive order mandating that, starting September of 2008, all Texas girls, ages 11 and 12, must receive Merck’s HPV vaccine, known as Gardasil, upon entering the sixth grade.

“The HPV vaccine provides us with an incredible opportunity to effectively target and prevent cervical cancer,” said Perry. “Requiring young girls to get vaccinated before they come into contact with HPV is responsible health and fiscal policy that has the potential to significantly reduce cases of cervical cancer and mitigate future medical costs.”

However, Perry’s order has come under fire from a range of critics from staunch, abstinence-touting conservatives to civic watchdogs. For one thing, his mandate circumvented a host of legislative and regulatory processes. In addition, there have been concerns raised about a relationship between Perry and Merck, the vaccine’s maker. Merck has undertaken an extensive and aggressive lobbying campaign in order to get their vaccine broadly distributed. In fact, one of the pharmaceutical company’s lead lobbyists in Texas is actually Perry’s former chief of staff.

Perhaps the most alarming fact about the order is that Gardasil has only been tested for about five years and was approved by the FDA only eight months ago, meaning that the vaccine’s safety and efficacy has not been adequately proven. Among concerns are the long-term effects the vaccine may have on the female reproductive system, as well as the possibility that the vaccine itself may lead to cancer. It’s also unclear for how long the vaccine is effective.

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. According to the Texas governor’s office, approximately 20 million people in the nation are infected, including one in four 15 to 24 year olds. Certain strains of HPV cause most cases of cervical cancer. Around 3,700 women die from cervical cancer every year, and nearly 10,000 women get the disease on an annual basis. Planned Parenthood is among the organizations that support mandatory vaccinations, and the CDC also recommends that all girls should receive it.

So far, results of clinical trials of the vaccine have been very positive. Gardasil was nearly 100 percent effective in preventing infection by two strains of HPV responsible for 70 percent of all cases of cervical cancer and it also prevented infection by HPV strains responsible for about 90 percent of cases of genital warts.

Next week, Texas lawmakers will hold a hearing to discuss the issue in greater detail, although Gov. Perry seems committed to his plan. Making the vaccine mandatory could mean a windfall of billions of dollars for Merck.

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