- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2007

Everyone needs to take a deep breath, calm down and take a closer look at the “cutting edge” proposal to vaccinate young girls in the District against the sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer.

Unfortunately, critics and conspiracy theorists already are waving the black nationalist flag or raising the conservative mantra of morality. But these knee-jerk reactions fail to look at this potentially lifesaving initiative for what it really is — a public-health issue, not a sexual or racial issue.

Earlier this week, D.C. Council member David A. Catania introduced legislation that would require girls younger than 13 to be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV). The preteens would need proof of inoculation or a parental waiver before being allowed to enter the sixth grade in public schools.

What? Force young girls to be vaccinated against a virus they can contract only through sexual contact? What? A white council member suggesting that inner city girls, mostly black and brown, be subjected to a sinister plot reminiscent of forced sterilization or mandatory birth control? Heaven forbid, shades of the infamous Tuskegee experiment on unsuspecting black men and syphilis abound.

Hold up, wait a minute, let’s put some facts in it.

First, this is a proposal, not a done deal. Mr. Catania, at-large independent, plans to hold hearings in the council’s committee on health, which hopefully will generate informative debate.

Second, these shots are not part of a medical experiment in its trial stages aimed at one set of females. This locally discovered vaccine, tested on 11,000 women worldwide and in use in other countries for several years, is the first of its kind known to prevent any form of cancer. It has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and recommended by the American Academy of Pediatricians.

Geared for girls entering puberty, advertisements for the HPV vaccine — which is effective against one of the deadliest strains of the HPV virus, which causes 70 percent of cervical cancers — can be seen on television and in teen and women’s magazines, and is available now through private physicians.

Health care professionals and researchers agree that administering the vaccine around 10 and 11 years of age — which Mr. Catania said coincides with the sixth grade — would be most beneficial because it is assumed that girls of that age are not sexually active and have not yet been exposed to HPV.

Third, parents can “opt out” of having their daughters vaccinated. What parents do need, however, is more information about the preventative health care of their children, and maybe even of their own bodies, which is the added benefit of this public-health initiative.

Mr. Catania, whose own mother died at 43 of ovarian cancer, also seeks to capitalize on federal dollars being made available for the vaccine, which requires three shots at a cost of $360.

Speaking to a number of black women — physicians and faith-based advocates — who met here this week with the Balm of Gilead public-health awareness organization, not a single one objected to vaccinating young girls, especially young black girls. In fact, most were supportive, noting the increased rate of cervical cancer in black women, particularly in the District.

In conjunction with Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, the Balm of Gilead kicked off its public-service campaign in Georgetown yesterday. Twenty faith-based black women and physicians are participating in the “Spread the Word, Save a Sister” project aimed at encouraging black women to get tested and get the vaccine if they are younger than 26.

Perneesa Seele, founder and chief executive of the Richmond-based organization, called the Catania measure “on the cutting edge of a new public paradigm toward public health.” She hopes the debate “does not get bogged down in the controversy and the conspiracy theorizing.”

“I’d hate for us, 50 years from now, to be asking the question, ‘Why did all the white kids get the vaccine and the black ones didn’t?’ ” she said. “Let’s look at the facts.”

Although the vaccine was developed for all women, Ms. Seele said she is pleased that “no black child should grow up to get cervical cancer.” Only one logistical objection was offered — that of Dr. Renee Jenkins, head of pediatrics at Howard University Hospital and the president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which voted last summer to recommend the HPV vaccination.

Dr. Jenkins participated in a webcast panel discussion about the vaccine along with representatives of the CDC at the meeting sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation here on Wednesday. She said it is their consensus to take “a wait-and-see attitude” on mandatory, school-required testing until more information can be obtained about supply levels of the vaccine and on school staffs’ ability “to track yet another series of vaccines.” She said it is important to inform parents before a mandatory measure.

Mr. Catania countered that nothing in his proposed legislation is mandatory, aside from parents and physicians being required to have a conversation with young girls about the risks of the disease and the benefits of the vaccine.

Mr. Catania should be commended, not condemned, for this proposal, which could save lives and heighten awareness to the health risks of women.

“That’s all I wanted was the conversation,” he said.

Yes, but let’s not allow fear, passion or ignorance sidetrack the necessary debate.

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