The last domino has fallen in an Alberta-based advocacy group’s quest to make the HPV vaccine available to girls in the province’s schools.
At its May meeting, the board of the St. Thomas Aquinas School Roman (STAR) Catholic School Division passed a new policy that refers to allowing Alberta Health Services to administer all vaccines within the division’s schools. Previously, the health authority would proffer shots against things like measles, polio and tetanus in STAR Catholic schools but the division had a special ban against the vaccine guarding against the sexually-transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV). The virus can cause a number of cancers, the most common being cervical cancer.
In its new policy, STAR Catholic — which includes schools in Lacombe, Ponoka, and Wetaskiwin — does not specifically refer to HPV, but the policy includes a section that speaks to the value the board places on “the gift of sexuality.”
“While vaccinating against a sexually transmitted infection is not an inherently evil action,” the policy continues, “This type of vaccination assumes the potential practise of an unchaste lifestyle; a lifestyle that is not in harmony with Catholic teaching.
“The Board encourages parents and/or guardians to consult with their spiritual director, and healthcare provider as they discern consent to a vaccination against a sexually transmitted infection for their children.”
While noting that there is no evidence that suggests receiving the vaccine leads to promiscuity — which had been suggested in a letter signed by Alberta bishops in 2008 — University of Calgary health scientist and campaigner Juliet Guichon said the move represented a compromise that stands to benefit the division’s students.
“If it was a compromise document to open the doors to the vaccine, that’s great. But let’s encourage parents to understand that this vaccine is a revolution in health science because it’s the first vaccine that can help people avoid cancer,” said Guichon.
Guichon’s HPV Canada group started its work in 2012 when there were still 12 school divisions (11 were Catholic) in Canada that did not allow in-school HPV vaccinations. The collective of physicians and health scientists wrote letters to trustees and appeared at board meetings, pushing for them to allow the vaccine that can 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.
In the fall of 2013, HPV Canada succeeded in getting the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division to reverse its ban. The vaccine will be available to girls in Grade 5 and 9 within the division next school year.
Red Deer Catholic created its own immunization policy, which initially included a clause that allowed for the archbishop to provide a “written moral perspective” to be distributed to parents along with health information. The clause was later removed after the archbishop said it may cause some to question the autonomy of the board.
Guichon said some divisions are still sending out the 2008 bishops’ letter to parents, something she said is unfortunate because it can be misleading. She said manufacturers and regulators, anticipating that the vaccine would be controversial, made sure it was testing extensively to demonstrate its safety.
While parental consent is always needed before a child can receive any vaccination, statistics have shown that if an immunization program is made available in schools, immunization rates are significantly higher. Whereas fewer than one in five girls within the Calgary Catholic division got immunized at public health clinics before 2013, now that it is available in the division’s schools, Guichon said rates sit around 70 per cent.
She said the group will now direct its efforts to making sure all Alberta private schools offer the vaccine. Finding out which ones do not currently is a bit harder though.
“We’re counting on parents to tell us that their child is not allowed to get vaccinated in school. And if they tell us, confidentially of course, then we’ll try to respectfully communicate with the trustees so that they understand the benefits of this vaccine to the children in their school,” said Guichon.
Alberta, the last province to implement in-school HPV vaccinations for girls, announced in 2013 that boys will get the same opportunity next school year. The virus can lead to head, neck, anal and penile cancers in males.