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State health officials prefer HPV vaccine to be voluntary

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — State Health Officer Don Williamson said Wednesday state funds will be sought to provide a cervical cancer-prevention vaccine to adolescent girls and young women in Alabama, but he said immunizations won't be mandatory as proposed in some states.

Most cases of cervical cancer are linked to strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can be transmitted through sex. The vaccine is given in three injections over six months and aimed at providing immunization before sexual activity begins.

Williamson said he plans to ask legislators for $4 million to give the health department the ability to provide the vaccine to females ages 11-19 who don't qualify for the federally funded Vaccines for Children program, are uninsured or can't get it through their doctors or other avenues.

He said the $4 million would allow the department to vaccinate at least 10,000 girls and teens annually.

The state health officer said he hopes to get the funding for the budget year that begins Oct. 1 and have the vaccine in the fall.

"It ought to be readily available and in my opinion it ought to be voluntary. As long as it's a voluntary vaccine, we don't anticipate having any problems," he said.

Williamson said the age range of females targeted under the state's vaccine program would be coordinated with the funding and specifications of the federal program. Last year the Food and Drug Administration approved the Gardasil vaccine for females ages 9-26, but Williamson said the requested state funds would not cover all those ages.

The vaccine has become a point of contention in some states where officials have proposed mandatory immunizations. Last week Texas became the first state to make the vaccination mandatory when Gov. Rick Perry made it a requirement for girls entering the sixth grade as of September 2008.

Parents there would be allowed to opt out for religious or philosophical reasons by filing an affidavit.

Senate Health Committee member Myron Penn, D-Union Springs, said he would support providing funds to make the vaccine available in Alabama as long as it remains on a voluntary basis.

"It may not be a bad idea, (it would) give parents the option to decide to take advantage of medical technology to protect their loved ones," he said.

Gardasil protects against four HPV types which together cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts. The vaccine is made by Merck & Co. and costs $360 for the complete three-dose series taken over six months.

"We have not thought about (cervical cancer) as preventable — what you're really seeing is the recasting of a very old disease," Williamson said. "The only way we've had to fight cervical cancer until now was through early diagnosis and Pap smears."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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