Parents fill library to hear DOH talk on HPV vaccine

Parents fill library to hear DOH talk on HPV vaccine

Late afternoon Monday, Rhode Islanders from around the state gathered outside of the Cumberland Public Library to share their stories of protest against the HPV vaccine that's now mandated for incoming 7th-graders. Protesters expressed worry about the health effects and objected to making it a mandate.
While crowd protests outside against the state-mandated shots

CUMBERLAND - A largely contentious crowd of nearly 100 people greeted Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott Monday night at the Cumberland Public Library as the Rhode Island Department of Health continued its regional workshops about the HPV vaccine required of all 7th-graders this September.

Recently appointed DOH director, Alexander-Scott is charged with implementing a controversial law adopted a year ago but just taking effect with the new school year.

She and a team of medical professionals were in the Community Room of the library to outline the vaccine's benefits and field questions.

And while the crowd was patient for the 30-minute slideshow, they had plenty of questions - and personal stories about sick children - that later blunted Alexander-Scott's message.

This anti-vaccine protest has erupted in recent weeks as schools began notifying parents about the need to produce proof that 7th-grade boys and girls have been vaccinated for the cancer-causing human papillomavirus.

Detractors talk about negative medical reactions to the vaccine, but are also bristling at the state for insisting on a vaccine for 12-year-olds that guards against a disease spread largely by sexual contact.

And while the focus by family doctors and schools has been on the mandate, much of Monday's session focused on the exemptions available to parents that many said haven't been well publicized.

Alexander-Scott is calling attention to the DOH website's online exemption form that allows a parent to cite a religious objection.

The department, she said, has been reaching out to schools and providers to remind them of this exemption.

Find it at www.health.ri.gov/immunization/about/hpv/ under "resources" at the bottom of the page.

A medical exemption form is available only through a health care provider.

State law already requires a long list of immunizations for kids in public schools: hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, pneumococcal conjugate, Hib, and Varicella (chicken pox).

The new vaccine, said the medical professionals, is offering a long-term protection against certain warts and certain cancers, including cervical, by reducing the HPV virus in the population by some 68 percent among 13- to 19-year-olds.

It was adopted by the state, said Alexander-Scott, because Rhode Island has mandated school children receive every vaccine recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including those like tetanus, for example, that aren't spread within schools.

Three shots are required for full immunization and schools will be tracking all three, beginning with 7th-graders this year. Next year, they'll be looking for the second shot for 8th-graders and the following year, 9th-graders needing the third shot will be added.

Middle-schoolers are targeted because they're more responsive to vaccine and with the expectation of reaching them before they are sexually active, said Alexander-Scott.

The aim, the director said, "Is to prevent cancer for as many people as possible through vaccinations against HPV."

Currently, 27,000 cases of cancer caused by the HPV or human papillomavirus virus are diagnosed annually, she said. Some 4,000 women a year die of cervical cancer every year.

Gynecological oncology specialist Dr. Katina Robinson told the crowd that Rhode Island is leading the nation as one of the few places where it's mandated.

The vaccine was presented as "safe" and "effective" Monday night despite the stories parents presented to a crowd that loudly applauded everyone who stood to counter the professionals.

Side effects are mostly confined to soreness, slight fever, headache and, for some, fainting.

The DOH presentation was preceded by a rally of some 60 or more people outside of the library, most holding hand-lettered signs, objecting to the mandated vaccine and calling for its repeal.

Three doctors, Dr. Mark Brady, Dr. Stephen Petteruti and Dr. Christopher Black, were among those speaking out with the organization Rhode Islanders Against Mandated HPV Vaccine and the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity.

Brady told the crowd that the DOH "cannot demonstrate a clear and present danger from the virus," adding the mandate "smacks of paternalism."

Black said he doesn't "want my patients, my children, or my friends' children to be part of an experiment."

He added, "Who is going to back us up when something goes terribly wrong?"

Petteruti said his own stepson suffered temporary blindness in one eye following a shot that has never been investigated, the doctor complained.

Lincoln mom Michelle Rennick was among the speakers who described as many as 10 different diseases striking her daughter following the third shot three years ago.

The DOH had planned to conclude its short series of community meetings with Cumberland, but has scheduled two more for next week - West Warwick on Aug. 25 and Middletown on Aug. 27.