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Of the many viruses to which people are susceptible, human papillomavirus, or HPV, is particularly noxious. There are more than 170 strains of the virus, and while most don’t cause clinical symptoms, those that do can lead to genital warts, premalignant lesions and multiple types of deadly cancers, including cervical and penile.
But there is good news in all of this. Safe, highly effective vaccinations against HPV have been developed, tested extensively for safety and efficacy, and made widely available for several years now. Some 80 million doses have been distributed nationwide since the first version of the vaccine was approved a decade ago, and the CDC calls their safety record “excellent,” saying, “No serious safety concerns have been linked to HPV vaccination.”
A medical worker prepares a dose of the HPV vaccine for administration. In the United States, some 80 million doses have been distributed since the vaccine was approved.
Pan American Health Organization
Recently, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new version of the vaccine. It expands the number of HPV strains that can be successfully prevented, offering further protection to those who get vaccinated. They are the first vaccinations against cancer of any kind.
Given that federal tracking data shows about 27,000 people are diagnosed each year with HPV-related cancers and more than 4,000 women die annually in the United States from cervical cancer, the ability to prevent such disease is indeed something to be pursued. As the federal government embarks on a new initiative to cure cancer, this is true bright spot, one that shows winning the war is possible.
That’s why we solidly support a measure by state Sen. Rosalyn Baker of Maui that would make HPV vaccination mandatory for Hawaii youth, with the first of three shots required before beginning seventh grade. The measure also would allow pharmacists to administer the shots to girls and boys between 11 and 18 years of age, making it as easy to access as flu vaccine.
Baker’s proposal is in keeping with both science and federal policy recommendations.
“Get HPV vaccine for your sons and daughters at ages 11-12 to protect them from cancers caused by HPV infections,” the CDC unequivocally recommends. “Girls and boys should complete the HPV vaccine series before their 13th birthday. The HPV vaccine series works best when it is given at the recommended ages of 11 or 12.”
Nevertheless, when Baker, a cervical cancer survivor herself, introduced the bill in a committee hearing last week, it encountered some of the same emotional, fear-driven opposition that often meets vaccine discussions today.
Thanks to half-truths and outright lies circulated by the “anti-vax” movement largely online, poorly informed parents are too often unnecessarily fearful regarding potential side effects of vaccines. And there was plenty of evidence of exactly that in the public testimony offered last Tuesday, both verbally and in writing, against Senate Bill 2316.
It’s important to note that the bill earned strong support from medical and public health groups that understand the science behind HPV vaccinations, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists District VIII, the Hawaii Public Health Institute, the Hawaii Youth Services Network (representing 26 different organizations), Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, the Hawaii Medical Association and the ‘lmi Hale Native Hawaiian Cancer Network.
Federal tracking data shows about 27,000 people are diagnosed each year with cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers.
While some of those organizations and multiple state agencies called for modifications to the bill, it’s important to note that none questioned the efficacy or safety of the HPV vaccine. Rather, they asked for fixes to reconcile the bill with Hawaii Administrative Rules, clarifications regarding insurance coverage, reimbursement and other financial impacts, and similarly technical changes.
Baker, who chairs the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Committee, indicated she’d incorporate amendments addressing some of those concerns, including exemptions for religious, health, medical and likely cultural practice reasons. Such exemptions are reasonable and would go a long way toward addressing many of the criticisms of the bill.
But we encourage Baker and Education Committee Chair Michelle Kidani, whose committees are jointly hearing the Senate version of the bill in its first referral, to remain resolute in advancing this important public health measure, even as they incorporate reasonable changes.
While opponents of the bill (and its House companion, HB1910) deserve to be heard and have their concerns addressed, they don’t deserve the right to block a bill that has life-saving potential in a state in which about 9 women in every 100,000 develop cervical cancer each year, according to the CDC. Sadly, about one-third of those women die within five years of their diagnosis.
We have an opportunity within this legislation to make a positive difference in preventing deaths and other HPV-related incidence of cancer, as well as with other less lethal but nevertheless troubling health outcomes from HPV infections. It’s one that shouldn’t be stalled for a year due to Internet-driven fear mongering or easily overcome technicalities.
On behalf of the soon-to-be seventh graders who will be among the most immediate beneficiaries of these bills — 11- and 12-year-olds who rely on the judgment and leadership of governmental representatives they are too young to elect — work on this legislation should be completed carefully but expeditiously and sent on to Gov. David Ige for his approval.
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