Sag Harbor School Board Chooses Not to Weigh in on HPV Legislation

Dr. Steven Sobey addresses the Sag Harbor School Board of Education Monday night. Elizabeth Vespe photo

The Sag Harbor School Board of Education took a stance Monday night against writing a letter to New York State, in opposition or in favor of, a legislation that would require children receive the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination and influenza vaccine to attend school or daycare in New York State. 

Board member Chris Tice brought the issue up at the end of the board’s meeting, noting that the Southampton School District had sent a letter to the state, opposing the measures. 

The Southampton School Board last month wrote a letter to state lawmakers expressing opposition to bills that, if adopted, would add new immunization mandates for influenza and for HPV for students. 

The letter, signed by every member of that board of education and Superintendent Dr. Nicholas Dyno, states that decisions about whether a child should receive the HPV immunization should be left to parents and families, rather than being required by state law.

State Assembly Bill A0973 allows health care practitioners to administer vaccines for sexually transmitted diseases to anyone under the age of 18 without parental consent. A second bill permits any child who is at least 14 years of age to get immunizations without parental consent. A third proposal calls for the immunization of all children born after January 1, 2009, against human papillomavirus, while the last calls for mandatory flu shots for all persons attending daycare.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 79 million people are infected with HPV, which can cause cervical cancer and genital warts. There is no cure for HPV, and most strains of HPV do not produce cancer or any symptoms. In the United States, according to the CDC, 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer linked to HPV each year and 4,000 die from that disease. Since 2006, legislators in 42 states and territories have introduced legislation to require the vaccine, fund the vaccine, or educate children about the HPV vaccine.  

Dr. Steven Sobey — a board-certified urologist in Southampton,  an assistant professor of urology at Stony Brook University, and a parent of two children in Sag Harbor Elementary School — spoke about HPV to the board at Monday’s business meeting.

“In medicine, we say that there is nothing better for health then prevention,” Dr. Sobey, who is married to Board of Education president Jordana Sobey, said. “Immunizations therefore are the most effective and miraculous medications that we have ever had.” 

Dr. Sobey said he is currently taking care of many women with severe urologic complications associated with the disease, adding that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. According to the CDC, HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives.  

“High risk HPV rates, those that cause cancer, are 25 percent in men, and 20 percent in women,” he said. “If this could be prevented, why would we not want our children to have this life saving prevention?” 

Lastly, Dr. Sobey said that any anti-immunization message from the Board of Education sends the “wrong message” to the community, and state.  

Dr.  Louise M. Collins, MD, of East Hampton, sent a letter to the school board in favor of the vaccine mandate, which Ms. Sobey read aloud at the meeting. Dr. Collins graduated from Princeton University with a degree in molecular biology. She is a gynecologist, and researched HPV in medical school.  

Dr. Collins letter stated that in Australia, a free HPV vaccine program for girls was introduced in 2007 and rolled out in 2013 for boys. Recent studies show the number of precancerous legions has decreased by 90 percent, she said.

“Why would we not protect our children when we can do so safely and effectively,” Dr. Collins said in her letter.  

Dr. Harriet Hellman, director of Hampton Community Healthcare, and a practicing pediatric doctor, said she is pro- HPV vaccine, but had a neutral stance on whether the state should mandate the vaccine for school attendance.  

Dr. Hellman said she grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, when polio was a “real deal.” She said her father had polio in the 1920s, her uncle also had polio. Her parents didn’t take her sister or her to public places because of the risk of polio, said Dr. Hellman.  

“Herd immunity is what we get from vaccines,” she said, adding that it is important because there are people with cancer, auto-immune diseases, and organ transplants that cannot be vaccinated.  

“Protecting our healthy children helps them. It saves lives,” Dr. Hellman said.  

Ms. Tice explained that she believes in immunization, but questioned the legitimacy of the new law. She noted laws past last spring that required immunization for children in public, private and parochial schools in New York State focused on diseases that can be contracted while in school.

“This is requiring a vaccine for something you can’t catch in a traditional school setting,” Ms. Tice said. “I don’t believe the state should say you have to get it done in order to go to school.” 

Ms. Tice said she believed the board should write a letter opposing the legislation. However, other board members didn’t agree, with board member Alex Kriegsman stating he did not feel it appropriate for the board to take any position on the issue.

Ms. Tice responded that one of the roles of the board of education as legislative liaisons is to get involved in issues like this.

Board member Diana Kohlhoff said she was against writing a letter in support or against the bills, despite her position being in support of the legislation.

“Personally, I’m a supporter of vaccinations. I’ve had cancer twice, and I’m a big proponent of herd immunizations,” board member Brian DeSesa said. “However, I don’t think the board should take a position with respect to this vaccination. If you can’t get it through school related activities, that weighs in my decision. As a board member, I’d say not to take a position on it.” 

Michele Liot, a parent of two children in the district, stressed that it was the boards duty to write a letter to the state.  

“New York States seems to think we should be barring our children from education if they don’t get an STD preventable vaccine. If this isn’t an issue for the school board then what is,” Ms. Liot asked.

She said perhaps the issue at hand should be proper sex education in schools since HPV is a sexually transmitted disease.

Bills for mandatory HPV and flu shots have been proposed every year since 2014 and have never made it to a vote.