A flawed prescription

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 observe the 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.