Immigrants and the HPV vaccine: A flawed prescription

The U.S. finally saw the light and dropped its requirement that girls 
and women seeking a green card be vaccinated against the virus that 
causes cervical cancer.

November 19, 2009

It took well over a year, but the federal government has finally 
realized that it was out of bounds to require immigrant women to be 
vaccinated against the sexually transmitted virus that can cause 
cervical cancer.

In August 2008, authorities began requiring the vaccine for girls and 
women ages 11 to 26 who were applying for green cards. The vaccine is 
effective against the four strains of the human papillomavirus most 
likely to cause cervical cancer and genital warts. Most doctors 
recommend it for preteen and teenage girls; it is most effective when 
administered before a girl or woman has been exposed to HPV.

But the vaccine is not required for citizens, and the virus is not 
spread through casual contact. At a cost of about $400 for a series 
of three inoculations -- applicants for green cards had to pay for 
the vaccine themselves -- the requirement placed an additional burden 
on girls and women who sought residency in this country. Worse, by 
requiring the vaccine for immigrants but no one else, the government 
sent a tone-deaf message that immigrant women were somehow "unclean" 
and more likely to spread sexually transmitted diseases.

Groups that press for immigrant and reproductive rights protested, 
and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention removed 
the requirement, effective Dec. 14. Immigrants are required to get a 
variety of vaccinations, but only for diseases with the potential for 
outbreak, or diseases that have either been eradicated in this 
country or are on the verge of eradication. HPV fits none of these 
categories. That's not to deny the vaccine's value; authorities 
should recommend it to immigrants and explain its ability to fight a 
frightening disease.

Positive research findings on the vaccine led to a spate of state 
legislation two years ago that would have required inoculations for 
preteen girls. But those efforts faded after religious conservatives 
railed against them, saying the government was interfering in 
parental decisions about sex education. Other families complained 
that they wanted to wait to observethe vaccine's safety and 
effectiveness over time. One study found that blocking the primary 
HPV strains might create an opportunity for other strains to become 
more prevalent, which could diminish the vaccine's ability to bring 
down cancer rates.

If the vaccine isn't required for citizens, then it shouldn't be 
required for immigrants. The federal government took too long to 
discover that simple logic.