School board pulls support for HPV vaccination

By 
  • June 10, 2008

{mosimage}BURLINGTON, Ont. - Catholic Grade 8 students in Oakville, Burlington and surrounding areas won't be vaccinated on school property against a virus that causes cervical cancer. Halton Catholic District School Board voted 5-4 to reverse last year's decision to host public health nurses giving the Gardasil shot against HPV to girls whose parents have requested it.

The human papilloma virus is transmitted sexually. It is present in the majority of adult women and has been linked to most forms of cervical cancer. Gardasil, manufactured by Merck-Frosst, prevents infection by three strains of HPV which are thought to cause about 70 per cent of the 1,400 cervical cancers diagnosed in Canada every year.

Board chair Alice Anne LeMay said trustees were worried that inviting nurses in to vaccinate girls was "was sending a double message to the kids."

"Trustees on the board felt that to offer the sites, which supposedly offer Catholic values, it was not in keeping with what the schools are standing for," LeMay said of the June 3 decision.

The board will continue to send information about the vaccination program home with students, including a letter from Ontario's bishops and locations where public health nurses will distribute the vaccine. The trustees also urged that teachers place greater emphasis on abstinence and chastity in religion and health classes, and that the superintendent of education report back to the board on abstinence education in November.

Premier Dalton McGuinty blasted the board decision.

"I think it's a mistake for the board not to participate in that program," he told Canadian Press.

Health Minister George Smitherman pointed out that the vaccination program is designed so parents could make the decision.

The Ontario bishops' letter to school boards also emphasizes that parents should be the ones to decide whether their daughters get the shot.

"The bishops affirm that parents have the right and responsibility to decide whether their daughters should be vaccinated," said the Sept. 13, 2007 letter.

To date only Halton's Catholic school board, the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board in Sault Ste. Marie and eight private schools across the province have opted out of the provincial vaccination program.

"Our aim is to prevent cancer," Ministry of Health spokesman Mark Nesbitt told The Catholic Register. "We see this as an excellent opportunity to do just that — to prevent cervical cancer. I don't understand why that's an issue."

Abby Lippman, McGill University professor of epidemiology, biostatistics and public health, thinks it is an issue.

"There are problems with the policy as a public health policy. I always ask, and I still ask, is this the best way to spend scarce public health dollars?" said Lippman.

Lippman disagrees with the Catholic position on abstinence outside marriage. However, she still feels the the vaccination program will make Merck-Frosst rich with a government-sponsored program that does not address all cervical cancers. Lippman advocates a more organized and aggressive effort to get adult women to have annual pap tests.

"Whoever is getting vaccinated is (still) going to need to get pap testing, because the vaccine doesn't protect against all the strains of HPV. There are still 30 per cent of cancers associated with other strains," Lippman said.

Lippman worries that governments have bought into a Merck-Frosst marketing scheme based on fear.

"They've made people nervous. They've made them scared. I don't like any kind of public health campaign that manipulates people's fears."

While there are about 400 cervical cancer deaths per year, the numbers are headed down and there is no great crisis in cervical cancers, Lippman said.

In the first year of the vaccination program about 40,000 girls got the first of three shots necessary for the vaccine to work. The participation rate is about 53 per cent of eligible girls.

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