An expensive cervical cancer vaccine is now needed by young female immigrants before they can become legal U.S. residents, a requirement that immigration advocates say is unfair.
Federal officials recently added the Gardasil vaccine to a list of vaccinations that immigrants must have before they can obtain green cards. The cervical cancer vaccine is required of females ages 11 to 26.
The vaccine protects against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, or HPV, which causes cervical cancer and genital warts. But the vaccine is one of the most expensive and controversial, primarily because it is given at a young age.
Gardasil, given in three shots over a six-month period, costs about $400. That puts an added burden on green card applicants already paying more than $1,000 in fees and hundreds of dollars for mandatory medical exams, advocates say.
Huge barrier to immigrants
“This is a huge economic, social and cultural barrier to immigrants,” said Tuyet Duong, and attorney at the Asian American Justice Center in Washington.
Gardasil, the only cervical cancer vaccine on the market, was approved in 2006 for girls and women ages 9 to 26. Last year, an advisory committee to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the vaccine for girls beginning at 11 or 12, when they are getting other vaccines and before they begin having sex.
For U.S. citizens, the committee’s recommendations serve as guidance to states, but only Virginia thus far has added Gardasil to the vaccines required for schoolchildren. Immigrants need it because a 1996 change to the nation’s immigration laws required anyone seeking permanent residency to get all the vaccinations recommended by the committee.
“What surprised us the most is that this requirement is for immigrant girls and women, but not for the general population of natural born citizens,” said Jessica Aron of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.
The change, which was effective July 1, could affect tens of thousands of immigrants annually. More than 200,000 females ages 10 to 29 were granted permanent resident status each of the past two fiscal years, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
A spokeswoman said the government agency must enforce the requirement.
“It’s in the law. We don’t have the authority to hold off on the requirements,” said Chris Rhatigan.
Immigrants can seek a waiver on religious or moral grounds. However, Rhatigan said the person seeking the waiver would have to oppose vaccination in general, not just one vaccine in particular.
Other required vaccines include routine childhood vaccines such as measles, mumps, and chickenpox. The other new vaccine required is one for shingles for those over 60.
Dr. Jon Abramson, who chaired the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, said the panel never intended to require Gardasil for immigrants and wasn’t aware its recommendation would become mandatory.
“This is an unintended consequence,” Abramson said. “We didn’t even know about the law.”
Abramson, head of the pediatrics department at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, said he supports Gardasil for its potential benefits to women and girls, but believes it should be optional.
Merck & Co. spokeswoman Amy Rose said the drug company, which makes Gardasil, wasn’t aware of the requirement until after the rule took effect.