After 35 radiation treatments and seven chemotherapy sessions to reduce a cancerous lump in his throat from the human papillomavirus HPV, John Rhodes had trouble eating, swallowing and communicating.
For a time, he needed a feeding tube, and he has yet to put on the 80 pounds he lost as a result. As assistant coach for the Duquesne men’s basketball team, he had to use other tactics to get his players attention so he could teach them without the booming voice he used to have.
Mr. Rhodes, 50, expressed his support for the HPV vaccine at the Allegheny County Health Department’s public forum on Wednesday night. The forum was meant to gather community input about the possibility of requiring all adolescents be vaccinated against HPV.
“As a coach and a very competitive person, I challenge all of you to encourage more people to get vaccinated,” Mr. Rhodes told the crowd.
Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said the department would compile the information from community members and present it at the next board meeting on July 13. If the board decides to move forward with the mandate, Dr. Hacker said there will be time for public comment then. The health department is also discussing the possibility of requiring school nurses to report vaccination coverage for the HPV vaccine.
The HPV vaccine includes three shots over a period of six months and is meant to protect against genital warts, throat and mouth infections, and a host of cancers. The virus is a sexually transmitted disease and affects nearly 80 million people in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Following CDC guidelines, the mandate would require 11- and 12-year-olds to receive all three doses of the HPV vaccine in a certain period of time to be admitted to school.
Currently, the Pennsylvania Department of Health requires children to have one dose of meningococcal conjugate vaccine and one dose of Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, acellular pertussis) before entering seventh grade. State guidelines, which Dr. Hacker said the mandate would follow, allow students with moral, religious or medical concerns to be exempt. Dr. Hacker did not know of any other Pennsylvania counties considering such a mandate.
The vaccine is recommended at 11 or 12 so the child is protected before they come in contact with someone with the virus and because the vaccine has a stronger immune response in younger children, according to Karen Feinstein, CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, which leads an HPV vaccination initiative. If children are not yet vaccinated, the CDC recommends vaccination for females aged 13-26 and males aged 13-21.
In Pennsylvania, 48.2 percent of females between 13 and 17 years old and 26 percent of males received all three shots in 2014, according to CDC data. In the Pittsburgh region, 27 percent of girls and 21.8 percent of boys ages 14-17 were fully vaccinated in 2014, according to the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.
Although the HPV vaccine protects against several strands of the virus, James Lyons-Weiler, founding director for the Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge, said it does not target the rarer types of the virus. A mandate for the vaccine, he said, could cause a larger problem.
“The rarer kind sweeps in and replaces more common types. They’re rare because they’re more dangerous, more deadly,” he said. His only solution would be to wait until there is a program that protects against all types of HPV and to have better training for doctors administering the vaccine.
In the United States, the Rhode Island Department of Health began requiring the vaccine for seventh-grade students in September 2015, and several other states are considering legislation. Some other countries, though, have not had successful results from mandates for the HPV vaccine, which Alison Mullins, co-director for the Pennsylvania Coalition for Informed Consent, said is a red flag.
“This is a vaccine that is available to anyone, anyone who wants it can get it at any time. Why do we need to mandate something that we know has serious issues and that other countries have ceased mandating,” Ms. Mullins said.
She recommends people read the package insert on vaccines to learn about potential adverse effects. Gardasil, for example, she said, listed unexplained collapse, seizure, stroke and death on the package insert.
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