In 2007, then-Texas governor Rick Perry announced an executive order that would have had his state be the first in the nation to require all 11- and 12-year-old girls entering the sixth grade to receive the HPV vaccine. The announcement received widespread praise from public health advocates, with many expressing shock that Perry made the “out-of-character” decision to side with science over the ideology of some in his base.
But thanks to pressure from evangelical groups and anti-vaccine activists, Texas lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, voted overwhelmingly to sink the mandate.
“We did not want to be the first in offering young girls for the experiment to see if this vaccine is effective or not,” told The New York Times at the time.
Now, Texas has one of the highest rates of cervical cancer in the nation. According to the Texas Tribune, the CDC and National Cancer Institute revealed that in 2016, the age-adjusted rate of new cervical cancer cases for women in the state was 9.2 per 100,000. Only four other states — New Mexico, Alabama, Florida and Kentucky, had higher rates of the deadly disease.
While the state’s cancer rate can’t be entirely attributed to low vaccination rates, experts agree that the best way to get the high rates under control is to increase the administration of the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine. An estimated 99.7% of cervical cancer cases are caused by the HPV virus. Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women.
During the same year of Rick Perry’s good intentions, Australia rolled out a nationwide vaccination program which offered the HPV vaccine for free to girls at their schools, and later to boys, resulting in 80% of teens being vaccinated against HPV over the next decade. Now, in a stark contrast to Texas, Australia is on track to be the first country to eliminate cervical cancer.
“From the beginning, I think the [Australian] government successfully positioned the advent of HPV vaccination as a wonderful package that had a beneficial effect for the population,” Australian cancer epidemiologist Karen Canfell told the Texas Tribune. “It was celebrated for that reason, and it was a great public health success.”
State Rep. Jessica Farrar (D) says she regrets that Texas missed a golden opportunity.
“Here we are 12 years later, and look where we could’ve been, but because of certain beliefs, we’re suffering from cancers that could have been avoided.”
Featured image via Flickr