The House of Delegates on Friday approved legislation to eliminate Virginia's unique requirement that sixth-grade girls receive a vaccination against a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer.
On a 61-33 vote, the House favored repealing a 2007 law that requires girls receive the vaccine for the human papilloma virus, or HPV. The law went into effect in 2009.
The requirement contains a liberal opt-out policy, allowing parents to deny the vaccine for any reason. Less than one in every five incoming sixth-grade girls received the first of the three-dose vaccine last fall, said Jim Farrell, director of the state Health Department's Division of Immunization.
Health officials and supporters of the vaccine have said the opt-out policy makes the mandate more of a suggestion than a requirement. Parents can opt out of other required vaccines only for medical or religious reasons.
"It's really more of an educational mandate, which is a very good thing," Farrell said.
Still, Republican Delegate Kathy Byron argued during debate Thursday that government has no business mandating a vaccine for a sexually transmitted virus. There was no debate on Friday.
"The long-term safety and effectiveness of this vaccine is unknown," Byron said.
She acknowledged that many doctors believe girls should be vaccinated, but added: "I still believe that's a decision that shouldn't be made by the state. It should be made by their parents."
A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee recommended in 2006 that the vaccine be given to all 11- and 12-year-old girls, and it is approved for girls as young as 9.
About two dozen states have considered requiring the vaccine since then. But concern over funding -- the series runs about $360 -- and parents' concerns that it wasn't safe and would promote promiscuity derailed the proposals in every state except Virginia.
Although Virginia's law was passed in 2007, lawmakers pushed back the start date to allow time for more study.
School records show only 7,596 of the 43,830 girls enrolling in sixth grade last fall -- or 17.3 percent -- were documented to have received the vaccine, Farrell said.
HPV, the most common sexually transmitted virus, often is harmless but it can cause cervical cancer, which kills about 4,000 of the 12,000 women who get it each year.
Delegate Jeion Ward, D-Hampton and sponsor of the legislation that mandated the vaccine, urged the House not to reverse its previous decision.
"I know this vaccine will save lives," she said.
Republican Delegate Chris Stolle, an obstetrician-gynecologist, agreed. He said legislators must face the reality that a large percentage of girls become sexually active at a young age.
"There is no cure for HPV, only prevention," Stolle said.
The bill now goes to the Democrat-controlled Senate, which has killed previous attempts to repeal the mandate.