Texas on Friday became the first US state to require all 11-year-old and 12-year-old girls entering the sixth grade to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.
Averting a potentially divisive debate in the state legislature, Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, signed an executive order mandating shots of the Merck and Co vaccine Gardasil as protection against the human papillomavirus, or HPV, starting in September next year.
Perry's action, praised by health advocates, caught many by surprise in a largely conservative state where sex-related issues are often a battleground.
"I had no idea; I was absolutely caught off guard," said Jessica Farrar, Democratic representative for Houston, who sponsored a bill to require the vaccinations starting this September. "Normally, the governor does not take things like this upon himself, although I'm glad he did."
Under the governor's plan, girls and women from 9 to 21 receiving public assistance could receive the vaccine at no charge beginning immediately. The governor's office said parents could opt out of the required school program "for reasons of conscience, including religious beliefs."
"The HPV vaccine provides us with an incredible opportunity to effectively target and prevent cervical cancer," said Perry, who filled the unexpired term of US President George W. Bush and was re-elected to his second full term in November. "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."
HPV, affecting 20 million people in the US, including one in four 15-to-24-year-olds, is the nation's most common sexually transmitted disease. Texas has the second highest number of women with cervical cancer, with nearly 400 deaths last year, the governor's statement noted.
The vaccine, approved for ages 9 to 26, is given in a series of three shots over eight months. The shots are effective for at least five years and together cost US$360, said Curtis Allen, a spokesman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The governor's executive order directing Texas' Health and Human Services Commission to adopt rules mandating the HPV inoculations along with others required for schoolchildren saved legislators from having to go on record for or against a bill involving child sexuality.
Some parents have voiced concern that the plan could send a message that sexual activity was condoned or that vaccinations made it safe. On the whole, however, conservative and religious groups have not come out strongly against the vaccinations as long as families can opt out.
A spokesman for the governor, Robert Black, discounted news accounts that Merck's high-powered lobbyist in Austin, Texas, Mike Toomey -- chief of staff for Perry from 2002 to 2004 as well as for a Republican predecessor, William P. Clements -- may have swayed his former boss.
"I don't put a whole lot of stock in that talk," Black said.
The governor's order, he said "protects human health; it was the right thing to do."
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