Alberta boards deny access to HPV vaccine

By  Sara Loftson, Catholic Register Special
  • October 3, 2008
{mosimage}CALGARY - Two Catholic school boards in Alberta have refused to allow an in-school vaccination to guard against a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer.

In September Calgary Catholic District School and St. Thomas Aquinas school board, south of Edmonton,voted against making the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccination available in its schools.
Calgary Bishop Fred Henry “worried that (authorizing) the HPV vaccine might have the appearance of condoning sexual activity," said trustee Mary Martin, on behalf of the Calgary school board.

Henry sent a letter and spoke directly to the Calgary trustees clearly stating his stance against in-school vaccinations. As well, Alberta bishops released a statement on the HPV vaccination in June reminding parents they are the primary decision-makers, not the Alberta government.

“A school-based approach to vaccination sends a message that early sexual intercourse is allowed, as long as one uses 'protection,' " the statement said.

“We accept the bishop is the leader and we're compelled to listen to his directives," said Martin. “The bishop made his position clear. It's not a departure from any of the traditional Catholic teachings.

“Even equally important and supported by the bishop is we regard our parents as our primary educators of our students and we believe this is an issue that parents need to discuss with their kids."

Calgary trustees voted 6-1 against the in-school vaccine.

“It was a spirited discussion around the table and there was a variety of opinions expressed, but by the end of the day we all agreed," said Martin.  

Health Minister Ron Liepertchastised Henry and the trustees in the media for their decision, encouraging parents in the Catholic system to contact their area trustee and complain.  

“We would obviously prefer that all school boards in the province co-operate and get on board with the vaccination program," said Howard May, communications manager for Alberta Health and Wellness.

“It's a health issue and it's going to save lives. The vaccine is proven safe and effective," he added.

It's estimated that about 1,300 women contract the sexually transmitted virus each year in Canada. About 40 women in Alberta die every year from cervical cancer. It is the second most common type of cancer for women between the age of 20 and 44.

The Alberta bishops' statement pointed out that “HPV infection is common and 70 per cent of adults will have HPV at some point in their lives. The infection often clears on its own within two years. For some, however, the infection can become chronic, leading to cervical changes, and possibly cancer."

Martin said not all parents will agree with their decision. “We know there will be a significant number of parents that accept the vaccine and we understand this."

Students will take home a communication package with the bishop's perspective and communication from Alberta Health and Wellness for families to make  their own decision.  

“Any child who is eligible to be vaccinated will be vaccinated at no charge, according to communication we've had with the health authority," said Martin.  

May said: “Now we are going to look at other options to explore how we can ensure that Grade 5 girls all across the province, regardless of what school district they are in, get equal access to the vaccination."

Health regions across Alberta have started to hold a free, voluntary vaccination campaign in schools for female Grade 5 students that began in September. The program is slated to include Grade 9 girls starting in September 2009.

Public health nurses will administer the series of three shots and parents will be asked for their consent before their child is immunized.

Health Canada has approved the vaccine Gardasil and the federal government has made $300 million available to the provinces to pay for it.

In Ontario, two Catholic school boards out of some 26 have decided not to approve the provincial government's vaccination program. The Ontario bishops have also released a statement saying the vaccination should be a parental decision.

(Loftson is a freelance writer in the Calgary area.)

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