Multiple bills propose striking HPV vaccine information requirement in Iowa schools

By: - February 13, 2023 6:42 pm

Health care professionals and lobbyists said the vaccine greatly reduces the risk of developing HPV-related cancers. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Iowa lawmakers are considering eliminating a requirement that schools inform students about the HPV vaccine, which prevents certain cancers.

Under current law, Iowa schools provide information on availability of a vaccine for the human papillomavirus when teaching on human growth and development or health curriculum. House File 187 would strike that requirement. The bill advanced out of an Iowa House subcommittee on Monday.

Human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted disease. Infections often go away within two years, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but cause cancer in some cases. The HPV vaccine prevents the development of up to 90% of cancers caused by the virus, according to the CDC.

But some Republican lawmakers say schools should not be weighing in on families’ decisions surrounding vaccination. Two other bills, Senate File 159, and Senate Study Bill 1145, are primarily focused on restricting instruction and material on gender identity and sexual orientation for younger students, but also would strike or change vaccine information requirements for schools.

In several education subcommittee meetings this session, parents with the conservative Moms for Liberty spoke in support of striking the HPV vaccine information requirement. Amber Williams said at a Feb. 9 meeting that there are peer-reviewed scientific studies which show “serious safety concerns” about the vaccine.

“We take the medical-related vaccine discussion out of the school setting and put it where it belongs: between medical professional and the parent or guardian of the minor, where the necessary opportunity for informed consent is conveyed, while in a medical setting for a medical procedure,” Williams said.

Medical professionals and lobbyists disagreed with the assessment that students should not receive information on the HPV vaccine. They cited research proving the efficacy of the vaccine in reducing cancer rates, especially among people vaccinated at a younger age. Chaney Yeast with the Blank Children’s Hospital said telling students about the HPV vaccine in school is life-saving information.

“We share all sorts of information in schools to help educate our young people to care for their own bodies and the bodies of their future loved ones,” Yeast said. “So we teach kids how to look both ways before crossing the street, that’s safety education. We teach kids don’t talk to strangers, that’s safety education, we teach kids don’t smoke cigarettes, that’s the safety education. This should be treated no differently than that.”

Bethany Niermeyer with Informed Choice Iowa, the only organization registered in support of the legislation, said it’s important to note that the bill is only taking out the requirement to educate students about the HPV vaccine. It will not prevent schools from choosing to discuss the vaccine in the classroom, she said.

Niermeyer also said that the requirement provides advertising for Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical company that is the provider of the only HPV vaccine currently distributed in the United States. She said if schools are educating students about the HPV vaccine, they should also inform them about adverse reactions that could be caused by the vaccines.

The CDC says HPV vaccines are safe and effective but could cause side effects that are generally mild, such as injection site pain and swelling, fever, nausea or fainting.

“I would say that we need to actually improve the actual education that is outlined here,” Niermeyer said.

Some health care providers disagreed with the assessment that schools providing information on the HPV vaccine limited Iowa families’ abilities to make their own decisions on vaccinations. Vaccines are not administered by school staff.

“We’re not talking about getting the vaccine. We’re just talking about telling them that it’s available, which I think is a very hopeful thing,” Rep. Monica Kurth, D-Davenport said.

Rep. Brooke Boden, R-Indianola, said she’s “not necessarily ready to kill the bill.” But she has a lot of questions about schools’ current practices on vaccine education, she said, and wants to have conversations with teachers and school staff about what HPV vaccine education currently exists in Iowa schools.

“What’s that look like exactly?” Boden said. “You know, not that people shouldn’t be informed about prevention and all of those things, what HPV is. But you know, how this works in the legal world is you open a door that opens the door that opens the door that opens the door. So I want to understand the foundation of this first before we get too excited about it.”

The subcommittee recommended passage, and the bill will next be discussed by the full House Education Committee.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.