Juliet Guichon calls upon readers to help parents receive accurate scientific information from publicly funded school boards about vaccination that can help their children avoid certain cancers.
For several years, citizens have worked effectively to help thousands of Canadian school children have easy access to vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a sexually transmitted virus.
HPV infection causes nearly all cervical cancers, and cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and throat (oropharynx). Two strains (“types”) of HPV, HPV16 and HPV18, are responsible for about 70% of the cervical cancers and an even higher proportion of the other HPV-associated cancers. Two other HPV types, HPV6 and HPV11, cause about 90% of genital warts.
Prevention of infection is the best method to prevent diseases, including cancer, that are caused by infection. A vaccine has been developed that prevents infection by four types of HPV: HPV6, HPV11, HPV16, and HPV18. This vaccine is known as the quadrivalent vaccine (because it contains non-infectious material from the 4 HPV types), and by its proprietary name, “Gardasil”.
The HPV vaccine is highly effective in preventing infection, but does not treat established infection. To prevent infection, the vaccine must be administered prior to infection. All Canadian jurisdictions offer the vaccine at no cost to girls prior to Grade Nine. Prince Edward Island and Alberta offer it for free also to boys.
When the HPV vaccine was first available in school for girls, Roman Catholic Bishops in Ontario in 2007 and in Alberta in 2008 recommended to school trustees that the vaccine be banned from administration in Catholic schools, which are wholly publicly funded. Twelve school districts in Canada complied with the Bishops’ recommendation to ban administration of HPV vaccine in Catholic schools, including ten school districts in Alberta and one each in Ontario and the Northwest Territories.
As a consequence of citizen engagement, all school districts have reversed their bans and now administer the HPV vaccine. Here is a short video describing that effort and thanking supporters.
But HPV vaccine controversy continues in Calgary. The Calgary Catholic School Board requires principals to include the Alberta Bishops’ 2008 letter with the information from public health doctors in packages sent home with the vaccine consent form. The Board posts the 2008 letter on its website.
In September 2014, citizens requested that the Calgary Catholic School Board vote to refrain from distributing and presenting this episcopal letter. So far, the request has not been granted.
The 2008 Bishops’ letter states, “a school-based approach to vaccination sends a message that early sexual intercourse is allowed, as long as one uses ‘protection.'” This argument is not valid. Preventive public health programs such as tetanus vaccination do not send a message that it is acceptable to walk on rusty nails nor do they promote such behaviour. Likewise, the HPV vaccine does not induce sexual activity or communicate that such activity should take place, and multiple peer reviewed medical publications have empirically established this point. For example, Emory University health scientist, Robert Bednarczyk and colleagues have presented strong evidence that the HPV administration of the HPV vaccine does not change children’s behaviour.
The Alberta Bishops’ 2008 letter states, “there is no consensus among those involved in public health in Canada that HPV vaccination is the most prudent strategy in terms of allocating health care resources to address the goal of preventing deaths resulting from cervical cancer.” This is also completely false.
The letter also states, “We encourage parents to learn the medical facts concerning this vaccination and possible side-effects.” This statement implies that the vaccine is not safe or effective. This is also quite false. The HPV vaccine is safe and effective.
In addition, it states, “The best interests of children demand that parents and guardians be fully informed before granting consent.” Alberta Health Services properly informs parents and guardians before seeking their consent to vaccination both on its website and in information sent home with the consent form. The Bishops’ letter does not advance but rather impedes the information process.
Vaccines ought to be easily available in school to children whose parents or guardians consent.
School districts have a moral obligation to present only scientific, medical and other information that is accurate.
The Roman Catholic Church does not prohibit HPV vaccination. On the contrary, Pope Francis has never banned HPV vaccination and indeed has called upon the faithful to respond to one another with a Christian ethic of care which, he said, “means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about.”
If Bishops wish to distribute non-scientific information to parents, then they are free to do so in the churches they oversee.
Please help parents receive accurate vaccine information by writing to the Calgary Catholic School District Board <email@example.com> and asking it please to present and distribute only scientifically accurate information and to cooperate with public health in every way to help children avoid HPV-related cancers.
More information about HPV Canada’s work regarding the Canadian Catholic school board vaccine bans may be found here.
Juliet Guichon is founder of HPV Canada, and Assistant Professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary