A Lockwood mother of five is protesting a plan by RiverStone Health to offer a controversial vaccine designed to prevent cervical cancer to students at Lockwood School.
RiverStone Health, the county's public health agency, has scheduled a Gardasil immunization clinic for fifth- and sixth-grade students on Wednesday. This is a vaccination against the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer. The vaccination is recommended for 11- and 12-year-olds.
RiverStone, which employs a full-time nurse at Lockwood Schools, is simultaneously offering the Menactra immunization to guard against meningitis, a bacterial illness. The vaccine is recommended for all sixth-graders.
But it is the HPV vaccine that is troubling Tabatha Pearson.
"My issue is with the drug — period," said Pearson, who has two children enrolled at the school. "I believe the school and RiverStone Health are encouraging the kids to be sexually active."
She fears the vaccinations may encourage casual sex among young people who think it protects them against all sexually transmitted diseases.
Barbara Schneeman, communications director for RiverStone Health, said the vaccination is strictly voluntary.
One dose of Menactra offers protection for five years and costs $14. The HPV vaccine is a one-time, three-dose series at various intervals and costs $14 for each shot. The cost is being underwritten by the Vaccines for Children Program, a federally funded initiative that provides vaccines at no cost to children who might not otherwise be vaccinated because of inability to pay. The vaccine would normally run about $200 for each of the three shots.
Pearson also contends students and parents have not been adequately informed about the vaccine and its health risks.
Some parents have shunned the vaccine fearing it could render their child autistic. However, there is no data to suggest the vaccine will cause mental retardation, autism or any neurological syndromes that would cause paralysis or deficit, according to health officials. There is also no proven data to show that the vaccine causes sterilization in women.
While Pearson said she signed the form giving her older daughter permission to receive the vaccine several years ago, both Pearson and her husband were working full time and didn't pay enough attention to what they were signing, she said.
"I didn't have time to go in and research it all," Pearson said. "I dug deeper into it. The information that Lockwood School and RiverStone Health are giving to the public, or the lack thereof, is so little that people are not even aware. Parents will sign the paper thinking that this drug is fine."
There is some information on the school's website about the immunization clinic, although not all of it is immediately accessible. Pearson said that is an attempt to keep parents in the dark.
"I believe all parents need to know the facts about this drug and what it could do to their children," Pearson said. "The company has lawsuits filed against it. It is not something that we should be taking lightly. The facts are that this drug is dangerous."
Gordon Klasna, who is in his first year as principal of Lockwood Middle School, said he has heard some concerns about the upcoming immunization clinic, but no one has contacted him directly.
"It's not really a school deal," Klasna said. "We provide facilities for RiverStone."
Klasna said the school sent information to parents to empower them to make their own decisions as to what is right for their children.
"It wasn't something that Lockwood was saying you have to do in any way, shape or form," Klasna said. "We were just providing information to make use of the clinic out here if they wished. It's not something where a 13- or 14-year old girl or boy can just walk in and say, 'Hey, give me the shot.' There has to be parental consent."
Klasna said Lockwood School has a long history of offering immunizations, including those for flu, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella), tetanus, meningitis and HPV.
RiverStone Health, too, has a long history of providing the HPV vaccine in schools. In addition to Lockwood, RiverStone has provided Gardasil immunizations in nine schools: Independent, Elysian, Broadview, Laurel High School, Laurel Middle School, Huntley Project, Canyon Creek, Elder Grove and Orchard.
Since the vaccine was licensed in 2006, RiverStone has given 2,139 doses — 256 of them at schools.
"It's the first vaccine that we have that can prevent cancer in women," said Tamalee St. James, community health services director at RiverStone. "Most cervical cancers are caused by the HPV virus. We need to get the vaccine in kids before they are sexually active and before they've been exposed to the HPV virus. The studies have shown that that age group also responds more positively toward the vaccine."
Pearson isn't the first to take issue with the HPV vaccine. It has long been the center of controversy even serving as a lighting rod in a debate last year among presidential hopefuls.
The vaccine is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Planned Parenthood of Montana also supports access to the HPV vaccine.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. More than a quarter of girls and women ages 14 to 49 have been infected, with the highest rate, 44 percent, in those ages 20 to 24. About 12,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and about 4,000 women in the U.S. die from this disease in the U.S. every year, according to the CDC.
In an August report, the Institute of Medicine, which advises the government, found the vaccine to be safe. In fact, more than 35 million doses of HPV vaccine have been distributed in the United States as of June 2011. The most common side effects of the vaccine are similar to those associated with most injections: redness, warmth and pain at the site of the injection. Younger adolescents might feel lightheaded.
According to the Kinsey Institute, the average age of first intercourse in the United States is about 17 for both boys and girls. About 25 percent have had sex by age 15.
Thirty-two percent of teenage girls nationwide received all three shots needed to prevent HPV infection, according to the CDC. In Montana, 33.2 percent of girls received the three-shot series.