Catholic educational leaders across Ontario are debating whether to allow Grade 8 girls to get the new HPV vaccine in school, amid fears the controversial needle effectively condones the kind of premarital sex their religion condemns.
The Halton Catholic board voted last night to let public health officials enter board elementary schools to administer the vaccine against human papilloma virus, the cause of most cases of cervical cancer.
The Toronto city board is to consider the issue tomorrow, and a Northern Ontario Catholic board will do so next month, after the province’s bishops weighed in with a pastoral letter on the question last week.
It is up to parents to decide whether their daughters get the vaccine, but HPV can only be contracted through sex, and sex outside marriage carries “profound risks to a young person’s spiritual, emotional, moral and physical health,” the Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement.
Ontario and three other provinces — Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island — are the first to launch school-based programs for administering the shots.
Anthony Danko, the Halton trustee who has submitted a motion to bar the HPV program from his board’s schools, said the vaccine’s moral ramifications rank high among his several concerns.
“It’s presuming that they’re going to have sex. This may be the reality, but it’s not a very hopeful attitude,” Mr. Danko said.
“We’re teaching abstinence and on the other hand we’re saying, ‘Here’s protection, just in case.’ It’s kind of a contradiction.”
Reverend David Wilhelm, another trustee, addressed the board last night, before the motion was defeated four to three: “What the bishops are telling us is that parents have the right and the responsibility to make these decisions for their children. I don’t think any of us have the right to take that away. Sometimes there is a tendency for us to want to take responsibility for the decisions of other people but as trustees, that goes well beyond what we’re here for.”
Oliver Carroll, chairman of the Toronto board, dismisses arguments that offering HPV immunization is a tacit vote in favour of unmarried young people having sex. “I can’t imagine too many parents would be encouraging their 13-, 14-year-old children to engage in sexual activity. But we recognize the world around us,” Mr. Carroll said.
“From my perspective, and I think the majority of the board, this is a health issue, and it’s a means to protect females from genital warts and cervical cancer … At the end of the day you balance off two moral obligations.”
He said “one or two” members of his board have moral objections to the needle being given to young girls in their schools, but they are in the minority, and the board is likely to give the program a green light, with parents making the final decision in individual cases.
The HPV vaccine, also known by its brand name Gardasil, is considered by many experts to be a major public health advance, providing safe protection against cancer by preventing an infectious disease. Studies indicate that it stops four types of the virus, which account for about 70% of cases of cervical cancer. The illness kills close to 400 Canadian women each year, with 1,350 new cases annually.
The federal government allotted $300-million in the last budget for provincial HPV vaccine campaigns, after the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended females age nine to 26 should receive it. Controversy has arisen in recent months, however, partly because the funding was announced after extensive lobbying by Merck, which makes Gardasil, and because of the lack of long-term research on its efficacy and safety.
Dr. Bob Nosal, medical officer of health for Halton, said it is a safe and effective vaccine and giving it to young girls acknowledges the nature of adolescent behaviour. “If the teaching was going to dissuade all Catholic girls from having sex, then you probably wouldn’t need the vaccine,” he said. “But the reality is, and the stats show it, that a significant portion of high school and certainly university students are engaged in sexual activity, and the transmission is going to occur.”
In their letter, the bishops express “regret” that the program was introduced in Ontario schools without more study and public education. The note urges parents to keep in mind some important considerations when deciding whether to let their daughter have the shot, saying the vaccine could have “unintended and unwanted consequences.”
“Sexual activity is appropriate only within marriage,” they write. “Outside of marriage, abstinence is not only clearly the choice that leads to spiritual and moral well-being, but it is obviously the best protection against risks of disease.”
Mr. Danko said he is also concerned children could be vaccinated against the wishes of parents, noting that provincial law allows public health officials to override parents’ objections if a child opts for such a needle. However, Dr. Nosal said his nurses have no intention of vaccinating children against their parents’ wishes.
The Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board, based in Sault Ste. Marie, has asked for more information before it decides whether to allow the shots at its schools, feeling the program was implemented too quickly, with not enough notice.
“Our biggest concern is we don’t have very much information on this,” said Marchy Bruni, chair of the Huron-Superior board.
…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, Alexander Hodgins, after a September 19, 2007 article by Tom Blackwell and Katie Rook in The National Post