When the state Senate almost unanimously passed a bill last September to require that all girls be vaccinated against the human papilloma virus before starting the sixth grade, it seemed Michigan was poised to lead the nation in fighting the sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer and genital warts. But apparently, preventing a disease that infects half of all sexually active Americans was too controversial for members of the state House.

Sarah Royce

With supporters in both parties, the House originally passed the bill by a 58-45 margin, but dissenters pushed for a second vote. With just hours remaining in the Legislature’s 2006 session, enough legislators switched sides to kill the measure.

Opponents have no trouble finding excuses for voting it down. They claim it should be parents’ choice whether to vaccinate their daughters and that vaccination forces a premature discussion of sex. Worst of all, they gasp, it encourages these young girls to have sex. Lots of sex.

But the bill simply puts the HPV vaccine on a list of mandatory school vaccines and allows parents to opt their child out. And an HPV vaccine is no more likely to encourage promiscuity among pre-pubescent girls than a diphtheria vaccine would stop children from washing their hands.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Beverly Hammerstrom (R-Temperence), has said that most insurance companies will pay for the vaccine, and that the federal government’s Vaccines for Children program will cover uninsured children. Still, the vaccine is expensive – $360 for the three-shot sequence – and some families whose insurance plans don’t cover the vaccine may be left out. New Hampshire just became the first state to offer the vaccine to girls ages 11 to 18 free of charge. Legislators should act similarly and subsidize the vaccine for families who lack the insurance coverage and don’t qualify for federal assistance.

While most cases of HPV clear the body without symptoms, in some cases it can be deadly. Cervical cancer infects 9,700 and kills 3,700 women annually, and 70 percent of all cases are associated with HPV. Vaccinating all girls before they become sexually active is the best way to prevent these deaths and the spread of the disease. The House’s reversal on the HPV vaccine last month is shameful, and it’s up to the incoming House to promptly reintroduce the life-saving bill.

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