Staring down the edict of a Calgary bishop who says the HPV vaccine contributes to promiscuity, a newly formed advocacy group is pushing Roman Catholic schools to allow students to be immunized against the sexually transmitted virus. Calgary is the only major city in Canada with a publicly funded school board
that withholds the vaccine on religious grounds, the group says. This puts the thousands of girls in the city and southern Alberta at risk of cervical cancer.
The activists, who include ethicists and doctors, have formed HPV Calgary in an attempt to strong-arm the Calgary Catholic School District into allowing vaccinations in Grades 5 and 9 with other routine shots. After more than a year of correspondence with the school board, they went public Monday and are calling on trustees to discuss the issue by Saturday.
?In the letters from the physicians to the trustees, the word ?children? is used three times at least per letter. In the letters of response from the trustees they use the word ?bishop? three times per letter,? said Juliet Guichon, an assistant professor in community health sciences at the University of Calgary.
?They have delegated their decision making to a non-elected official without expertise in evidence-based medicine or public health.?
The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, called Gardasil, prevents the four strains of the sexually transmitted virus that most commonly lead to cervical cancer. Social conservatives oppose the vaccine, arguing it promotes promiscuity and implicitly condones premarital sex.
In 2007, Ottawa provided a grant so that school-aged girls could be vaccinated for free; Alberta followed suit. But at least eight religious boards in the province still bar the vaccine from being administered on school grounds. Outside the province, only two school boards are believed to have taken such a stance.
Dr. Ian Mitchell, a professor of pediatrics and a bioethicist with the University of Calgary, said HPV Calgary tried to present the latest evidence supporting the vaccine to the board, with no success.
?If you are an immigrant, if you are not so affluent, if you don?t have a car, if you?re very dependent on an hourly wage, it is very unlikely that you?ll get immunization,? he said. ?So we saw this decision by the Catholic school board as affecting all children, but really affecting the most vulnerable children.?
The resistance can be traced to a 2008 edict from Bishop Frederick Henry of Calgary and other Alberta bishops.
In addition to a letter from Alberta Health Services providing information about Gardasil and where to get vaccinated, Catholic school students were sent home with a letter from the six bishops advising parents to protect their children from ?counterproductive influences and potential abuse.?
?Although school-based immunization delivery systems generally result in high numbers of students completing immunization, a school-based approach to vaccination sends a message that early sexual intercourse is allowed, as long as one uses ?protection,? ? it said.
Not every school board agrees. After the Edmonton Catholic board allowed girls at its schools to be vaccinated, nearly 70% of them took up the offer. By comparison, the rate among girls in Calgary?s Catholic schools is 18.9%.
Federal health officials had once hoped as many as 90% of girls would be vaccinated. Results have so far been lacklustre: Ottawa has the highest rate, with 75% of eligible girls receiving the first of three doses during the 2010-11 school year.
Mary Martin, chairwoman of the Catholic board in Calgary, said students receive information about where they can get the vaccine outside school.
?The overarching concern or issue here is that anything we do within our Catholic schools have to be congruent with the teachings of our church,? she said. ?At the end of the day [we?re providing] a faith-based education that is in alignment with the direction of the Alberta bishops.?
Vaccination advocates said studies have found no correlation between the HPV vaccine and increased promiscuity.
?What we see anecdotally is that the children don?t jump into bed, they go out for recess. It?s hard to debate this because it?s not grounded in evidence or rationality,? Ms. Guichon said.
Further, it?s possible to contract HPV through sexual assault and abuse, she added.