A case of fear and ignorance
Troy Media – by Dr. Vardit Ravitsky, University of Montreal and Dr. Arthur Caplan, New York University
What would you think if your daughter’s Catholic public school banned public health nurses from administering a vaccine that could safely prevent cancer? You would have been outraged, and rightly so. Yet this is currently happening in a number of school districts across Canada.
The human papillomavirus virus (HPV) causes various types of deadly cancers, genital warts and cervical lesions that can cause infertility. HPV vaccines can prevent many of these problems. The vaccine has such well-documented safety data and is so effective that it is enthusiastically endorsed by the World Health Organization and countless medical organizations.
In many countries, governments fast-tracked its approval arguing that it would be unethical to delay its use. The Federal government funds it and the Canadian Paediatric Society recommends it.
Well then, you would wonder, why do Board Trustees ban this vaccine and not others? Because, unlike measles, mumps or rubella, this disease is sexually transmitted. Vaccination is effective only if given before your daughter has a sexual encounter – whether consensual or not – and a chance to contract the virus. Your Trustees are guided by the local bishop who believes that vaccinating in schools “sends a message that early sexual intercourse is allowed”.
This combination of fear and ignorance causes school districts in parts of Ontario, Alberta and the Northwest Territories to ban the administration of HPV vaccines in public Catholic schools. The ban results in thousands of girls not being vaccinated every year.
Sure, your daughter could be vaccinated elsewhere, but not all parents have the resources necessary for setting up three appointments and taking their daughters to the clinic. Girls of low socioeconomic status are least likely to get the vaccine if it is not administered at school. They are also at higher risk of being infected.
Should any parent or taxpayer put up with this state of affairs?
There is no evidence that your 10 year old daughter will jump into bed once she receives the vaccine. She’s much more likely to go out for recess. Research shows no change in risk-taking sexual behaviour after vaccination.
Even if your daughter remains chaste until marriage she could still become infected by her previously-non-abstinent or unfaithful husband. Or she could be a victim of sexual abuse.
The current HPV vaccine ban in certain public schools sets a dangerous precedent that should concern all Canadians.
These schools are impeding the ability of parents to do what is in the best interest of their daughters. Although Calgary Bishop Fred Henry acknowledge that “to vaccinate is not inherently evil action” and that it remains the parents’ decision, banning the vaccine in schools sends parents a clear message that vaccinating is wrong. This puts their children at unnecessary risk.
The ban puts the health of others in the community at risk. Vaccination is effective – and can even eradicate infectious diseases – only if its uptake is high. The uptake in Calgary’s Catholic schools is a fraction of what it is elsewhere. This is dangerous for everyone.
Catholic schools receive billions annually in provincial funding and we all foot this bill. They have no right to ignore the economic implications of their policies and increase the cost of healthcare for all.
The Vatican has not banned the HPV vaccine. Many Catholic school districts across Canada allow it. This idiosyncratic stance taken in parts of Canada is not only profoundly unethical; it is harmful to girls, their communities, and the Canadian healthcare system. Catholic schools should not abuse their power. They should put children first and remember that compassion and justice are – after all – Catholic values.
Dr. Vardit Ravitsky, is Interim Director if the bioethics program with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Montreal. Dr. Arthur Caplan is Director of the Division of Medical Ethics with the Department of Population Health – Langone Medical Center – at the New York University.