What would you think if your daughter's school banned public health nurses from administering a vaccine that could safely prevent cancer? You would have been outraged, and rightly so. Yet this is happening in a number of Roman Catholic public school districts across Canada.
The human papillomavirus causes various types of deadly cancers, genital warts and cervical lesions that can cause infertility. Vaccines can prevent many of these problems. The HPV vaccine has such well-documented safety data and is so effective that it is enthusiastically endorsed by the World Health Organization and countless medical organizations. In many countries, governments fast-tracked its approval, arguing that it would be unethical to delay its use. The federal government funds it and the Canadian Paediatric Society recommends it.
Why are Catholic board trustees banning this vaccine and not others? Because unlike measles, mumps or rubella, this disease is sexually transmitted. Vaccination is effective only if given before your daughter comes in contact with the virus. Your trustees are guided by the local bishop, who believes that vaccinating in schools "sends a message that early sexual intercourse is allowed."
This combination of fear and ignorance has caused school districts in parts of Ontario, Alberta and the Northwest Territories to ban the administration of HPV vaccines in public Catholic schools. As a result, thousands of girls go unvaccinated every year.
Yes, your daughter could still be vaccinated elsewhere, but not all parents have the resources necessary for three appointments at a clinic. Girls of low socioeconomic status are least likely to get the vaccine if it's not administered at school. They are also at higher risk of becoming infected.
Meanwhile, there is no evidence that your 10-year-old will jump into bed once she receives the vaccine. She'll probably just go out for recess. Research shows no change in risk-taking sexual behaviour after vaccination. However, even if your daughter decides to remain chaste until marriage, she could still be sexually abused, or become infected by an unfaithful or previously non-abstinent husband.
The ban sets a dangerous precedent that should concern all Canadians.
The schools involved are impeding parents' ability to do what's in the best interests of their daughters. Although Calgary Bishop Fred Henry has acknowledged that "the vaccinate itself is not inherently evil" and that it remains a parent's decision, the school ban sends parents a clear message that vaccinating is wrong. This puts their children at unnecessary risk.
The ban puts the health of others in the community at risk. Vaccination can eradicate infectious diseases only if uptake is high, but the uptake in Calgary's Catholic schools is a fraction of what it is elsewhere. This is dangerous for everyone.
Catholic schools receive billions of dollars a year in provincial funding. They have no right to ignore the economic implications of their policies.
The Vatican hasn't banned the HPV vaccine. Many Catholic school districts across Canada allow it. The idiosyncratic stance taken in parts of Canada is not only profoundly unethical – it is harmful to girls, communities and the Canadian health care system. These schools should put children first and remember that compassion and justice are, after all, Catholic values.