Every year, millions of Canadian children are given vaccinations at school to help combat any number of conditions. But the female students in Calgary’s Catholic school system will be receiving one less shot than their public school counterparts. In 2008, a group of bishops led by Bishop Frederick Henry deemed that providing the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination — which guards girls against the four strands of HPV most associated with cervical cancer — to fifth and ninth-grade girls could be viewed as a compromise of Catholic teaching. Why? Because HPV is a sexually transmitted virus.
The National Post reports that when children in Calgary’s Catholic schools were sent home with vaccination information from Alberta Health Services they were given an additional letter. Penned by Henry and five other bishops, the letter instructed parents that “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.”
If you find the decision absurd, you’re not alone. This week, a group of parents, physicians and researchers have gone public with their fight to have the Catholic School District overturn the ban and allow the school vaccinations to stand. The group, known as HPV Calgary, has started a campaign to pressure school trustees to address the situation by June 30.
The group argues that there is no evidence that vaccinations lead to higher rates of promiscuity. And while parents of girls in Catholic schools would still be able to have their daughters vaccinated away from school, the group argues that the ban would ensure that many girls wouldn’t get the chance.
“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,” Dr. Ian Mitchell, a professor of pediatrics and a bio-ethicist with the University of Calgary, told the National Post. “So we saw this decision by the Catholic school board as affecting all children, but really affecting the most vulnerable children.”
The HPV vaccine — and the virus, in general — has been at the center of several recent controversies. But HPV Calgary says that by banning the vaccine, the church is literally endangering the lives of thousands of girls. As HPV Calgary member and bio-ethicist Juliet Guichon told the CBC, “The physicians have told the trustees that they can predict with statistical certainty that there will be disease and death as a consequence of these children not receiving the vaccine.”