AUSTIN, Texas -- Bypassing the Legislature, Governor Rick Perry signed an order yesterday making Texas the first state to require that schoolgirls get vaccinated against the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.
By issuing an executive order, the Republican governor apparently sidesteps opposition in the Legislature from conservatives and parents' rights groups who fear such a requirement would condone premarital sex and interfere with the way parents raise their children.
Beginning in September 2008, girls entering the sixth grade -- meaning, generally, girls ages 11 and 12 -- will have to get Gardasil,
Perry, a conservative Christian who opposes abortion and stem cell research using embryonic cells, counts on the religious right for his political base. But he has said the cervical cancer vaccine is no different from the one that protects children against polio.
"The HPV vaccine provides us with an incredible opportunity to effectively target and prevent cervical cancer," Perry said in announcing the order.
Merck is bankrolling efforts to pass state laws across the country mandating Gardasil for girls as young as 11 or 12. It doubled its lobbying budget in Texas and has funneled money through Women in Government, an advocacy group made up of female state legislators around the country.
Perry has several ties to Merck and Women in Government. One of the drug company's three lobbyists in Texas is Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff. His current chief of staff's mother-in-law, state Representative Dianne White Delisi, a Republican, is a state director for Women in Government. Perry also received $6,000 from Merck's political action committee during his reelection campaign.
Texas allows parents to opt out of inoculations by filing an affidavit objecting to the vaccine on religious or philosophical reasons. Even with such provisions, however, conservative groups say such requirements interfere with parents' rights to make medical decisions for their children.
The federal government approved Gardasil in June, and a government advisory panel has recommended that all girls get the shots at 11 and 12, before they are likely to be sexually active.
The New Jersey-based drug company could generate billions in sales if Gardasil -- at $360 for the three-shot regimen -- were made mandatory across the country. Most insurance companies now cover the vaccine, which has been shown to have no serious side effects.
Merck spokeswoman Janet Skidmore would not say how much the company is spending on lobbyists or how much it has donated to Women in Government.