One of the clearest measures of a society can be found in its public school system. For example, it is no accident that in totalitarian states, such as North Korea, what may be taught comes directly from the government. Children are indoctrinated early to believe their "Dear Leader" never is wrong even though many do not have enough food to eat. And in war-torn countries or those which are deeply divided by religious differences there are few, if any, functioning public schools.
By contrast the United States has a proud history of public education for all of its children. Or at least it did. I have watched as American public schools have gone from generally good to abysmal because of the many changes in our society and because of government meddling. From forced school- busing to classes taught in every language except English, to removing "Under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, our State and Federal Governments have been butting into the business of local schools for more than 30 years and the schools are the worse for it.
One of the latest developments in public education is that schools believe they are the de facto parents of the children who attend them. With so many children living with only one parent or two parents who work, with who knows who looking after them, it is no wonder. Now some States are trying to require girls entering the sixth grade to be immunized against something called HPV (Human Papilloma Virus), a virus that only can be transmitted through sex and which causes certain kinds of cancer. What does that say about our public schools and about the state of our culture?
There are so many things wrong with the idea -- and the fact that the immunizations would be mandatory rather than voluntary -- that it is difficult to know where to begin. However, I shall try. First, the obvious: what do we know about the vaccine? We know it is made by Merck & Company, Inc., a very large pharmaceutical firm that has been busy hiring lobbyists and advertising the drug, called Gardasil (registered trademark), in magazines and on television. We know that immunization consists of a series of three shots at a cost of approximately $400.00 per child and that making the vaccine mandatory is a Merck goal. We know that Merck lobbyists have descended upon State capitals throughout the country and created a group called Women in Government, which has samples of the "correct" legislation posted on its website. And we know that the Federal Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine late last year.
What we do not know is whether the vaccine is safe. There has been no long-term study as to the possible side effects of the vaccine - which include nausea, headaches and fevers -- and the few short-term studies were on college-age women, not the young girls the legislation is targeting. Unfortunately, many State legislatures appear to have little reluctance and are falling down like bowling pins, rushing to do Merck's bidding. Among many others, Kansas, South Carolina, Indiana and Colorado all either have bills pending or have already have approved the plan. The latest State to approve legislation to make the vaccine mandatory is the usually sensible State of Virginia, while Texas Governor Rick Perry -- who many believe has aspirations to higher office -- has just signed an executive order requiring the same thing.
Certainly, a vaccine that prevents any type of cancer is the sort of medical breakthrough for which many of us pray. The vaccine against HPV may yet prove to be safe but requiring vaccinations after so little research sets a dangerous precedent.
Of course, there are the obvious cultural and moral implications. What does it say about our society that eleven and twelve-year old girls might need protection against a virus which can infect them only if they are sexually active? Why on earth should young girls be given this vaccine? This sends the message that educators and parents and guardians simply don't care. More importantly, how do we as parents send a message to our children and grandchildren that they should stay abstinent until marriage when the schools require them to get vaccinations designed for the sexually active? It makes no sense at all. Gardasil (registered trademark) is not a vaccine for polio or even chicken pox, both of which were eventually - after several years of study and gradual introduction - required by law for all school-age children. The HPV virus cannot be spread through sneezing, coughing or playing with other children.
Finally, there is the matter of enacting any law that would force all children or all boys or all girls to be immunized. It should not be mandatory for anybody, adult or child, to get a vaccine for a disease that is not a public health threat. Such treatments always should be voluntary, yet over the last few decades it seems many things have come down from on high and citizens were just told, "Deal with it. It's the law." What happened to "Opting in" if you wish to go along with a program or a new technology or new medical treatment? When did we decide it was okay to force our citizens and their children to abide by new policies?
Let the parents decide whether or not their daughters should receive this vaccine. And only after there are more studies done on the vaccine itself, about which we know very little except one thing: we do know that a mandatory inoculation program costing $400 per child with approximately 2,000,000 girls in the appropriate age cohort (11-12) currently in the United States would equal an awful lot of money for a pharmaceutical company that is very much in favor of this legislation.