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Schools to Offer STD Vaccine

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Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Unified School District, and possibly dozens of other school districts in Los Angeles County, plan to offer female students a controversial vaccine that prevents a virus linked to cervical cancer, health officials said.

As the shots become available in the coming months, L.A. Unified officials said, female students with parental consent would be eligible to receive Gardasil, a vaccine recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration that prevents four types of the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV), two of which cause cervical cancer. Some conservative groups have expressed concern that providing the vaccine to adolescent girls would encourage them to engage in sexual behavior.

An advisory committee of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that all 11- and 12-year-old girls receive the vaccine, along with young women currently ages 13 to 18. It is generally not recommended for older women who may have already been exposed to HPV. The committee also voted to add Gardasil to its list of vaccines provided by the federal Vaccines for Children program.

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Through the program, Los Angeles County distributes 16 approved vaccines for free to qualified healthcare providers, including 22 school districts, 80 nonprofit community clinics and 44 county health services sites.

Karen Maiorca, who retired two weeks ago as L.A. Unified’s director of nursing services, said the vaccine would be offered each year at dozens of clinics that the district operates. The district’s 600 school nurses will be responsible for spreading the word.

And though the Vaccines for Children program is designed for uninsured and underinsured children, she said, no student will be turned away.

School districts registered for the Vaccines for Children program, including L.A. Unified, Hacienda La Puente Unified and Azusa Unified, can refuse to offer the vaccine.

Lydia Estep, senior director of pupil services for the Azusa Unified School District, said district nurses would not be providing Gardasil to its students in the 2006-07 school year for a number of reasons.

“The vaccine is fairly new,” Estep said. “And it’s not a requirement at this time.”

But Maiorca said it is L.A. Unified’s policy to provide all vaccines distributed by the county.

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Los Angeles school board President Marlene Canter said she sympathized with those concerned that the vaccine might promote sexual activity.

“But the way I see it is you have a chance to prevent a disease that kills people,” she said. “You should look at it as a preventive vaccine that saves lives.”

Every state in the United States is currently involved in the Vaccines for Children program, and every county in California receives vaccines through it, federal and state officials said.

Price negotiations between Vaccines for Children and Gardasil’s maker, Merck & Co., will take at least two months, and it could be four to six months more before the county can send it to school districts, said Peter Kerndt, director of the county health department’s sexually transmitted disease program.

Kerndt said he will soon recommend to county supervisors that all female adolescents in Los Angeles County receive the vaccine unless their parents opt out.

“We just want to share and extend protection to as many women as we can,” he said. “This is great news.”

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County and L.A. Unified officials said they have not received opposition to the idea of providing the vaccine to students. But they have not yet publicized its availability and a number of groups said they were not aware of the school district’s plans.

“Wow, that really is different,” said Linda Klepacki, a spokeswoman for Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo., who originally believed that the vaccine would be available only through private physicians and government welfare agencies.

Focus on the Family has maintained support for the vaccine, regardless of the provider, as long as parental consent is required. But some, including the conservative Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., say that health providers should also encourage abstinence before administering Gardasil.

“We continue to promote efforts by any healthcare provider to promote a measure of risk avoidance,” said Moira Gaul, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council. “But abstinence should be included with the promotion of the vaccine.”

Some parents say they are similarly concerned that offering the vaccine will take the focus off abstinence.

America Ruiz, an eighth-grader at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood, said she’d like to get the vaccine once it became available through the school district.

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But her mother, Jeannette Ruiz, finds it unnecessary at such an age. After having her first child at age 16, Ruiz said, she has been careful to educate her daughter on the dangers of premarital sex.

“Giving such a vaccine is saying that these kids are sexually active,” she said. “How can they assume that girls this young are sexually active?”

America, 12, said that’s not the reason she wants the vaccine. After all, she doesn’t have a boyfriend.

But when her grandmother died of breast cancer six years ago, she said, cancer became her biggest fear.

Still, shaking her head, America’s mother said, “It’s too early.”

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