A bill introduced this week in the state Senate would require Nevada preteens to be immunized against meningitis and the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus before they enroll in public or private school or daycare, potentially raising Nevada's below-average HPV vaccination rate.
But mandates on the HPV vaccine have only made it into the law books in Virginia and the District of Columbia, and have failed in several other states. Critics say the mandates would encourage promiscuity and that the pharmaceutical companies behind the vaccine have too aggressively pushed legislation.
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SB117 was introduced Monday and is sponsored by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. It will be handled by the Education Committee, but it's unclear if and when it might be up for discussion.
"If we vaccinate people, we can prevent diseases that are not only horrific but deadly," said Dr. Joe Hardy, a Boulder City Republican senator who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee and supports the bill. "The vaccines that we use now have a purpose, and this is one of those that has a purpose and will protect people for a long, long time."
State law already requires some vaccines for school enrollment, including diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, rubella and measles, although children can be excused for religious or medical reasons. The bill would add HPV and meningitis to the list.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., and can lead to warts and potentially deadly cervical cancer. About 79 million Americans have HPV, while about 360,000 will get genital warts each year and more than 10,000 women will get cervical cancer each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts recommend the three-part vaccine be administered over six months for boys and girls age 11 or 12, before they become sexually active.
But mandates have been controversial. Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued an order in 2007 that required young girls to be vaccinated, but the measure met a fierce backlash by religious conservatives and critics who said Perry was too cozy with lobbyists from drugmaker Merck & Co., which at the time was the only company producing a vaccine.
Texas lawmakers ultimately overturned Perry's order.
Nevada campaign finance records show that Merck, which makes the HPV vaccine Gardasil, and GlaxoSmithKline PLC, which makes the HPV vaccine Cervarix, have donated a total of about $10,000 to Democratic legislative candidates and the Democratic Searchlight Leadership Fund PAC in the past election cycle.
In spite of the political baggage, groups like the nonprofit Immunize Nevada are encouraging more students to get the vaccine, and said tying it to school enrollment is probably an effective way to reach the goal of vaccinating 80 percent of Nevada teens by 2020.
"The important message is that HPV vaccine is cancer prevention," said Heidi Parker, executive director of Immunize Nevada. "Studies have shown that it does not increase promiscuity."
Nevada teens are vaccinated at a lower rate than the national average. About 27 percent of girls ages 13 to 17 had completed all three installments of the vaccine, and 7 percent of boys had completed the series.
With help from a more than $600,000 grant from the CDC, the group is promoting Pre-Teen Vaccine Week this week by spreading the word about how children can get the vaccine for free and screening a documentary about HPV-related cancers around the state.
"We have a lot of education ahead of us," Parker said. "We're helping parents understand the impact of these cancers and not be stuck on the other pieces."