Withholding a health measure on moral grounds does not serve the interests of children. And yet that is what some – but by no means all – Catholic school boards are essentially doing when they choose to ban the vaccine for the human papillomavirus.
The virus, which is transmitted sexually, causes cervical and other forms of cancer. Immunizing girls in Grade 5 not only protects their health, but could also save their lives. The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends the vaccine; so does the World Health Organization.
Calgary’s Catholic school district, however, announced its opposition to the immunization four years ago on moral and religious grounds, a stance that was supported by the Bishop of Calgary, Fred Henry.
There is absolutely no evidence that the HPV vaccine will lead to promiscuity. A major U.S. study, published in Pediatrics journal last month, found no increase over three years in pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections or birth-control counselling among girls who were immunized, compared with those who were not.
In the face of irrefutable medical evidence that the HPV vaccine protects against cervical cancer, and the absence of a link to sexually risky behaviour, the “opposition on moral and religious grounds” becomes harder to justify.
Certainly, there is no Catholic church teaching that lays out this position. Indeed, other publicly funded Catholic school boards in Alberta, and across Ontario (with the exception of Halton region), support the vaccine, which is funded by the federal government.
“Even if a girl is chaste until marriage she can contract the infection from her husband on their wedding night if he is unchaste,” notes Juliet Guichon, a University of Calgary health professor who founded HPV Calgary, and is raising money for a legal challenge.
The Calgary Catholic district recently announced it will review its policy, and consult with parents. This is an excellent first step toward a reversal. The board’s fears are completely unfounded. Vaccines only work if enough people receive them; otherwise, the disease can still spread. The trustees must show leadership and adaptability and choose to protect children – rather than risk being forced to.