Group urging voters on HPV vaccine ban
A newly-formed group of doctors and health scientists is trying to make an election issue out of the absence of an HPV vaccination program for students in local Catholic schools, but it is unclear if Catholic school board voters themselves are interested.
HPV Canada, primarily made up of health scientists at the University of Calgary, sent letters to Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division board trustees in June, calling for the board to revisit its 2008 decision to not allow the human papillomavirus vaccine to be offered to students in its division before the board’s summer recess. That did not happen, and now the group is asking voters to question candidates about the HPV vaccine ban in advance of Oct. 21 elections.
“Parents are entitled to have publicly-funded vaccines available to their children in publicly-funded schools. The most just, effective, and efficient method to deliver vaccines is in school,” said Juliet Guichon, assistant professor of community health sciences at the U of C.
The group succeeded in getting the Calgary Catholic School District board to overturn its ban one year ago, despite vigorous opposition from the local bishop and an initial reluctance from the board. After being pressured, the board opted to consult parent councils at its schools, and the overwhelming sentiment was in favour of the vaccines’ availability.
HPV Canada has also succeeded in getting Catholic boards in Grande Prairie and Yellowknife to allow the vaccines into their schools this year.
A local debate on the issue during the campaign would be welcomed by Red Deer Catholic board chair Adriana Lagrange. But she said it does not appear that parents are concerned by its absence locally.
“We have not received any parental concerns to date since the decision was made many years ago. But that’s not to say that it may not come up as a question in this election, and we would welcome the opportunity to discuss it,” she said.
In 2008, Alberta became the last province to make HPV vaccines available to girls in Grade 5. That year, Red Deer Catholic initially voted to offer the vaccine in its schools, but one month later voted unanimously against doing so after a number of Catholic bishops in the province raised concerns that delivery of the vaccine could promote promiscuity among girls.
HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that can cause a number of cancers, the most common being cervical cancer. The vaccination can help prevent up to 70 per cent of viral infections that lead to cervical cancer and up to 90 per cent of those that cause genital warts.
Red Deer Catholic is one of eight Catholic boards in Alberta — including St. Thomas Aquinas School District, which serves Lacombe, Ponoka, and Wetaskiwin — that does not allow the vaccine in its schools. But it does provide information on where vaccinations can be had to any parents seeking it for their children.
Guichon, who herself is Catholic, said board trustees need to alter their typical decision making process of needing parental concern before acting on an issue in this case.
“They’re using this same decision making process and the ramifications could be quite significant if they don’t listen to medical professionals who are telling them ‘Please, the best way to give vaccination is in the schools. Please just let us get it done,’” she said.
Delivery of the vaccine to minors requires parental consent, so Guichon said it is not a matter of forcing the vaccine on parents and their children. But, she said, if the vaccine is not offered in schools, the rates of children who get the vaccine are very low and those of high socioeconomic status benefit more because of the time and travel needed to then obtain the vaccines.
“If access is blocked, poor children are not likely to get vaccination if it’s offered only in public health clinics. But if it’s offered in school, they get it at very high rates ... So blocked vaccine access in school is an issue of social justice,” said Guichon.
Lagrange did not comment on her own personal thoughts on the issue, and said that she expects voters will be most focused on space concerns relating to increasing enrolments come election time. Because of the vaccination issue in other divisions, however, Red Deer Catholic has commissioned the formation of a draft policy regarding all vaccines that is expected to be presented to the board at its next meeting on Oct. 8.