The Texas HPV Vaccine Controversy

Dawna Cornelissen

The biggest debate in Texas right now is over Governor Rick Perry's executive order mandating all girls entering the sixth grade to be immunized with the recently approved human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine starting in September 2008. The order, signed on February 2, has sparked all sorts of controversy: the conservatives are furious, the liberals are speechless, and the independents are suspicious. Personally, I have mixed feelings about Perry's decision as well. At first, I was elated that Perry, a conservative Republican, was able to see past the absurd argument that the vaccine would increase sexual promiscuity. But, almost as soon as Perry's order was signed, it turned out to be too good to be true.

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The biggest debate in Texas right now is over Governor Rick Perry's executive order mandating all girls entering the sixth grade to be immunized with the recently approved human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine starting in September 2008. The order, signed on February 2, has sparked all sorts of controversy: the conservatives are furious, the liberals are speechless, and the independents are suspicious. Personally, I have mixed feelings about Perry's decision as well. At first, I was elated that Perry, a conservative Republican, was able to see past the absurd argument that the vaccine would increase sexual promiscuity. But, almost as soon as Perry's order was signed, it turned out to be too good to be true.

It seems Perry has some strange bedfellows at Merck, the maker of the HPV vaccine, Gardasil. First of all, Perry's former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, is now one of Merck's lobbyists in Texas. Second, it has been reported that Perry received $6,000 from Merck's political action committee during his 2006 re-election campaign. Lastly, his current chief of staff's mother-in-law, Texas state Rep. Dianne White Delisi (R), is the state director for the Merck funded advocacy group, Women in Government. Perry's suspicious dealings made me question not only his motive for by-passing the legislature, but also his reason for making it mandatory. Was this just a sneaky way to both please Merck and, at the same time, create public resistance to the vaccine? My guess is that he is not quite that sly, but unfortunately that is exactly what is happening.

The opposition to the vaccine now brewing in Texas will most likely end with a bill overriding the executive order as well as leaving a bad image of Gardasil in most people's minds. Already, members of the Texas legislature have filed four bills that would supersede the Governor's order. In addition, some members have written letters to the Governor asking him to rescind the order. One bill (HB 2326) goes as far as to amend the Health and Safety Code in order to spell out the exact vaccines that would be mandated, which seems contrary to the argument that vaccines shouldn't be mandated at all. This list, of course, purposely excludes the HPV vaccine.

But, so far, Perry stands firm in his decision and surprisingly sounds very progressive. The Washington Times quotes him as saying, "Providing the HPV vaccine doesn't promote sexual promiscuity any more than providing the hepatitis B vaccine promotes drug use." I think this is very well said, but I am still not completely convinced about the necessity to make the vaccine mandatory. Don't get me wrong; I think the vaccine is great and I will have it myself (when I can afford it), but my issue is with the government telling people what to do with their bodies. I just don't think that is the answer. I think education, availability, and affordability are the answers.

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While I applaud Perry for trying to be progressive, as well as making it easy to opt-out by having a form online, I still feel like he went about it the wrong way. For one reason, it is pretty well known that if you tell people they have to do something, they will resist it. Also, the vaccine is still very expensive. Marilyn Keefe gives a great breakdown of the problems associated with the cost of the vaccine, as well as issues with insurance and government-funded healthcare. Additionally, having an opt-out form online is great, but only if you have a computer and internet access. Unfortunately, the whole situation is a big mess and it looks like the executive order really was too good to be true.

Although I don't have a clear answer as to how to resolve this issue, it needs to be resolved. I think that if a bill, similar to Perry's order, had been allowed to go through the regular legislative process it would have been better received and, at least, there could have been an opt-in option. But now, because of all of the negative attention surrounding Gardasil, it looks unlikely the girls and women of Texas will even get that. As I think about the future of vaccines, particularly an HIV vaccine, I worry that this same debate will happen again and again. That is why we need to figure this out. I see this HPV vaccine as just the beginning of vaccines that will be considered controversial just because they are spread through sexual contact. In reality, these types of vaccines should not be controversial at all; instead, they should be welcomed and appreciated.

Editor's note: Watch Stephen Colbert discuss Governor Perry's decision to make the HPV vaccine mandatory—"Bad Medicine" clip from Comedy Central's Colbert Report below.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.

Analysis Law and Policy

Supreme Court Ruling on Texas Law Reverberates Around the Country

Teddy Wilson

"To the extent that similar state laws have different provisions, like those that contain transfer agreements for example, those laws will need to be litigated individually to fall," said Jessica Mason Pieklo, vice president for law and the courts at Rewire. "The good news is that the Supreme Court's decision in Whole Woman's Health provides advocates with a solid foundation to begin those next fights."

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Monday two provisions in Texas’ anti-abortion omnibus law known as HB 2, and with that ruling the dominos began to fall. Similar anti-abortion laws in Wisconsin and Mississippi were blocked Tuesday by the Supreme Court, and Alabama’s attorney general announced he would drop an appeal to a legal challenge of a similar law.

However, significant obstacles remain to ensure access to reproductive health care throughout the country. A number of states have in place slightly different variations of the requirements struck down by the Court, which means it remains to be seen how lower courts may apply Monday’s ruling to restrictions that aren’t exactly like those included in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

Monday’s decision is a significant victory for patients and providers, but it doesn’t guarantee that targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP laws) across the country will start to fall immediately, explained Jessica Mason Pieklo, vice president for law and the courts at Rewire.

“To the extent that similar state laws have different provisions, like those that contain transfer agreements for example, those laws will need to be litigated individually to fall,” Pieklo said. “The good news is that the Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health provides advocates with a solid foundation to begin those next fights.”

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Dozens of states in recent years have passed TRAP laws, which single out abortion clinics and providers and subject them to regulations that are more stringent than those applied to clinics and physicians in other medical fields.

Many anti-abortion measures introduced around the country resemble copycat legislation drafted by Americans United for Life (AUL), an anti-choice organization that distributes proposals to state lawmakers as part of a strategy to flood state legislatures with anti-choice bills.

As Rewire previously reported, key players in the development of HB 2 were deeply connected to AUL and other conservative lobby groups.

The Supreme Court ruled in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt that two TRAP provisions under HB 2 placed “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking an abortion,” and constituted “an undue burden on abortion access.”

Specifically, the Court struck down the requirement that physicians who provide abortion care must have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the facility where the physician will provide abortion services. The Court also struck down the requirement that facilities providing abortions meet ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements, which involve prohibitively expensive medically unnecessary building renovations.

There are 16 states that have passed laws mandating that physicians who provide abortion care have admitting privileges or similar requirements. In addition to laws that have been struck down in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Wisconsin, courts have also blocked similar laws in Louisiana, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.

Laws requiring abortion providers have admitting privileges remain in effect in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah.

These laws typically require physicians have admitting privileges at a hospital near the facility where they provide abortion care. Some of these laws require that the hospitals provide OB-GYN services, and some require the physician to be board certified in OB-GYN medicine.

Other laws require that the hospital be no more than 30 miles from the facility where the abortion is performed, or have varied in defining the geographic boundary.

The law that was struck down in Mississippi required the admitting privileges be obtained at a “local hospital.” And Utah’s current law requires the hospital be within a “travel time of 15 minutes or less,” while Florida’s recently passed law requires the hospital be within a “reasonable proximity.”

There are 24 states that have passed laws requiring facilities in which surgical abortion services are performed to meet ambulatory surgical center standards that go beyond what is needed to ensure patient safety, and another 17 states require clinics that may only provide medication abortion to meet these same standards, according to the Guttmacher Institute.  

As Nick Bagley, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Law, told Vox, similar laws that have been passed in other states may face legal challenges in the wake of Whole Woman’s Health, but the details of those challenges may vary. “The Supreme Court only applies to Texas,” Bagley said. “Other states will have slightly different laws with slightly different facts to argue over.” 

Florida and Indiana TRAP Laws Set to Take Effect 

This year Florida passed its own Texas-style anti-choice omnibus law, which takes effect Friday. However, there are some differences between the two laws, including differences in the types of regulations of physicians who provide abortion care.

Clinics that offer abortion services in Florida will be required to have a written patient transfer agreement, which includes the transfer of the patient’s medical records, with a hospital within “reasonable proximity” to the facility. Physicians also will be required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within “reasonable proximity” to their clinic.

The law also mandates annual inspections of all licensed abortion clinics, requires any medical facility in which abortions are performed to submit a monthly report, and prohibits state or local governments from entering into contracts with organizations that provide abortion services.

State Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland), who voted for the bill, expressed concern after the senate vote that the bill’s language could become an issue in the courts. “Those clauses gave me concern that it would make it as though our intent was to close down all abortion clinics in the state,” Stargel told the Tampa Bay Times. “That was not the intent of this bill.”

After the Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday, Stargel reiterated that despite the bill’s similarities to the Texas law, it was not lawmakers intent to restrict access to abortion. “In Florida, we passed [the law] to safeguard women’s health, not to close abortion clinics,” Stargel said in a statement, reported the Florida Sun Sentinel.

Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, told the Miami Herald that the language of the bill may be different, but that Florida lawmakers had the same intent as Texas lawmakers: to shutter abortion clinics.

“It’s definitely different language,” said Goodhue. “But the intent is the same.”

Planned Parenthood has filed a lawsuit challenging the law, however, the organization is not challenging the admitting privileges requirement. 

Goodhue told the Florida Sun Sentinel that the organization will determine if there are grounds for other lawsuits in the future. “Right now, we’re seeking emergency relief on the other three provisions, but we’ll make sure that access to care is protected,” Goodhue said.

Gov Rick Scott (R), who signed the bill into law in March, said during a press conference Monday that his administration is reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision, reported the Miami Herald

Lawmakers in Indiana have in recent years passed multiple laws to restrict access to abortion, including laws that have provisions mandating that physicians have admitting privileges and other reporting requirements

Mike Fichter, president and CEO of Indiana Right to Life, said in a statement that the Supreme Court showed “utter disregard for women’s health and safety,” and defended a similar law passed state lawmakers this year.

“We will be reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision thoroughly to see how this legal precedent could affect Indiana’s laws on admitting privileges and abortion facility building standards,” Fichter said. 

An omnibus abortion bill passed in 2011 contained multiple abortion restrictions, including a provision that a physician performing an abortion must have admitting privileges at a hospital located in the county where abortions are provided or a contiguous county.

The law also allowed for a physician to meet the requirement by entering into an agreement with a physician who has admitting privileges at a hospital in the county or contiguous county.

Another similar law was passed by Indiana lawmakers this year, which made numerous changes to state laws, including requiring forced counseling and mandatory ultrasounds for abortion patients, creating regulations on physicians who provide abortion care, and banning fetal tissue donation that has led to the development of vaccines and other public health benefits

The law created a requirement that a written agreement between a physician performing an abortion and a physician who has written admitting privileges at a hospital in the county or contiguous county be renewed annually.

The law also requires the state department of health to submit copies of admitting privileges and written agreements between physicians to other hospitals in the county and contiguous counties where abortions are performed.

Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed the bill into law in March, and it will go into effect on Friday.

Ali Slocum, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, told the Indianapolis Star that the organization does not have any immediate plans to challenge the law in court. “We are focused on what is currently in the pipeline. It is possible that the standard that the court set [Monday] could be used to challenge restrictions in other states,” Slocum said.

Efforts in State Legislatures to Repeal Laws

In some states lawmakers and advocacy groups may push to repeal similar laws following the Whole Woman’s Health decision.

Arizona lawmakers have passed several anti-choice laws in recent years and, like Texas and Florida lawmakers, justified those regulations as necessary to ensure the health and safety of women in the state.

Jodi Liggett, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Arizona, said in a statement that the Supreme Court made a “clear statement” that laws that restrict access to abortion care are unconstitutional.

“Arizona is a large state, with population spread across many rural areas. Laws that delay care, require travel over great distances and overnight stays certainly place real-life burdens on women seeking our care,” Liggett said.

Arizona Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs told the Arizona Republic that she will lead the effort in the legislature to repeal similar laws. “No woman or doctor should be punished for receiving or providing essential medical care,” Hobbs said. “These restrictions have never truly been about women’s health.”

However, repealing anti-choice laws in the GOP-dominated Arizona state legislature may prove difficult.

Republicans hold an 18-12 majority in the state senate and a 36-24 majority in the state house, and they have introduced dozens of anti-choice bills in the past several years. There have been seven laws to restrict access to abortion passed by Arizona lawmakers, including a law similar to Texas’ HB 2 which requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges.

Those efforts have been spearhead by the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative think tank that promotes anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ, and so-called religious freedom legislation.

Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, said in a statement that the Supreme Court’s decision eliminated “common-sense safety precautions” for women seeking abortion care. “To give the abortion industry a blanket exemption from laws applicable to every other medical facility is unconscionable,” Herrod said.

Josh Kredit, general counsel for the Center for Arizona Policy, told the Arizona Republic that the Supreme Court’s decision suggest that abortion providers should be treated differently that other health-care providers.

“They are arguing they should be exempt from garden-variety health and safety regulations,” Kredit said. “It was clear that Texas, when it passed these, was focusing on protecting women, just like many of our laws that we pass in Arizona.”

Dr. Thomas M. Gellhaus, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said in a statement that the Court’s decision made it clear these laws do not improve the health and safety of patients seeking abortion. Said Gellhaus: “As the court found, it was clear that the ambulatory surgical center and admitting privileges requirements at the heart of Texas law HB 2 did not improve the safety of women, and served only as a barrier to women’s ability to access safe, legal abortion when needed.”

“Of course, this is not the end of the battle when it comes to abortion access,” Gellhaus added. “In dozens of states, women are living under laws that impede access in a variety of ways, for example banning certain abortion procedures, setting gestational limits, mandating that medically inaccurate information be provided to patients, and more. None of these have a basis in medicine, and all of them represent political interference in the patient/physician relationship. We will continue to oppose these laws and to promote safe access to legal abortion for our patients.”