The Flagler County School Board this week missed a chance to save lives. That’s strange, because we hardly go a day in schools anymore without hearing the importance of safety, protection, see something, say something. The school board even cheered a Handmaid’s-Tale-creepy “See Something Say Something” video at its last board meeting.
Health officials approached the board to describe the heavy cost of cervical and other cancers to men and women from the HPV virus. They told the board how effective it is to prevent those cancers, with a simple vaccine given to children mostly 9 to 11 years old, and how the district could be at the forefront of that safety campaign by allowing the department to voluntarily offer the vaccine in schools. Board members Trevor Tucker and Andy Dance were fine with it. Janet McDonald and Maria Barbosa were not, and Colleen Conklin leaned their way. Since the vaccine is not mandatory for attendance, they said they want to hear from parents first whether it’s even necessary to have it offered in schools. So it wasn’t an outright rejection, but pretty close.
The parent thing is a pretext to avoid doing the right thing now. It’s also a double standard. The board is not asking for parental opinions on mandatory vaccines such as t-dap, the triple cocktail offered in schools that inoculates against tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough, though it very well could, on the principle that parents could be better informed of the religious exemption and take advantage of it. The board wouldn’t dream of doing that because it would undermine the health department’s efforts and put people at risk for communicable diseases.
“Surveying” parents, as Barbosa is doing on her Facebook page, or asking the health department to gauge parental sentiment at PTO and School Improvement Council meetings, is also nonsensical, because we are dealing with a voluntary offer exclusively to parents who wish to take advantage of the service. Should their choice be held hostage by a likely majority who won’t be interested in the vaccine and don’t have to be concerned with it? And what would the permissible threshold be to approve the vaccine? 70 percent approval? 80 percent? Who decides, and by what rational criteria in this irrational demand? Should the entire parental body be surveyed about the presence of Junior ROTC on campus? Or the appropriateness of Key Club, Future Farmers of America or–forgive me father–a Gay-Straight Alliance club? Of course not. Those who want to join the clubs are welcomed with open arms. The majority who don’t want to are free not to. But they don’t get to veto the clubs’ existence.
So why are board members giving that veto potential to parents predisposed to decline the HPV vaccine? Because the three board members are looking for an excuse not to allow it in the schools, and going the parental-survey route is the perfect shield. They don’t want to allow it because of the vaccine’s connection to sex. Because the 80 million people who have HPV got it from sexual contact. And because the board members are under the wrong-headed assumption that offering the HPV vaccine somehow opens the door to promiscuity.
Dr. Stephen Bickel, the health department’s medical director, went blue in the face citing six studies that refute the fallacy. He and Health Department Director Bob Snyder went blue in the face repeating the word voluntary. It didn’t matter. The board members found various vague excuses to say no, citing time out of the classroom, the 2016 vintage of a CDC document explaining the vaccine (since when is 2016 outdated in medical literature? Should med schools throw out their Gray’s Anatomy? And I don’t mean the TV show, board members, but the book now in its 41st edition, the last dating, alas, back to 2015.) I imagine the board would be just as irresponsible if one day an AIDS vaccine is developed and was offered voluntarily.
McDonald is worried about time out of the classroom, when the vaccine is already freely available at the Health Department. She raises two fair points. But the health department’s Gretchen Smith refuted them: “I’m a parent. My kids just graduated last year, they went all the way through Flagler schools,” Smith said on the radio Friday, “and if I had gotten something in the mail or if I had gotten something that said you know, we’re going to be giving these shots in schools, I’d be all over it, because you know what, I don’t need to take the time out of my–it’s kind of a burden sometimes to take your kids out of school for half a day, sometimes for a whole day, sit in the pediatrician’s office for like an hour, maybe more, and then go back to work. Then they’ve been out of the classroom for several hours. It also cuts into your worktime.”
Of course there’s skepticism about vaccines, either from people who think vaccines are harmful on their face or because this country has a history of experimenting on human beings no less grimly than the Nazis did, whether to test biological agents, radiation, truth serums or communicable and sexually transmitted diseases, as in the infamous Tuskegee experiment on black people. That one didn’t end until 1972. There’s also something counterintuitive about injecting yourself with a disease on the assumption that doing so reduces your chance of getting that disease. And the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t exactly have the most stellar reputation.
But standard vaccines have also revolutionized public health and played an immeasurable role in lengthening life expectancy and quality of life. When it comes to the science of specific vaccines, most of the stories are made up, as are the fears. In the case of the HPV vaccine, which should be the next standard on offer, the risk factors are almost zero, the benefits as dramatic as preventing some 30,000 cancers a year. Of course I inoculated both my children, as Dance did his. But personal experience should have nothing to do with it. It’s all in the evidence, and in that age-old principle of health care: first, do no harm.
These days, our Flagler County School Board is seeding unnecessary harm. Maybe the number of children who’ll get cancer isn’t high. But unlike the millions of dollars we’re spending and untold hours we’re burning on 10 drills a year to prevent a shooter’s attack that will most likely never happen, the board is refusing to spend zero dollars and allow children a few minutes’ voluntary access to a vaccine that we absolutely know will kill some of them, year after year after year.
The board majority’s rationales have no leg to stand on. Not even a wooden one. Its opposition is not just inexcusable. It’s hypocritical. And it’s immoral.