Monday, June 30, 2008

Catholic bishops take shots at HPV vaccine

Alberta's Catholic bishops are warning parents to think twice about letting their daughters be vaccinated against a cancer-causing, sexually transmitted virus.

But the bishops, in a joint statement issued last week, stop well short of barring Catholic schools in Alberta from administering the vaccine, and acknowledge that parents are the "primary decision-makers" when it comes to their children's health.

The Alberta government recently announced it would fund a program to offer the vaccination against human papillomavirus.

Alberta's Health Minister said he wants Catholic schools to co-operate with the newly announced government immunization program against human papillomavirus (HPV).

Ron Liepert said school boards will have to "live with the long-term consequences" if they refuse to participate in the new campaign.

"I'm not sure what the debate is about," said Liepert, who noted the program is voluntary.

"They need to look at this through the eyes of cancer survivors who have clearly said to us, 'Please do this.'"

The bishops said the HPV vaccine has raised questions about whether it sends a message to girls that casual sex is acceptable.

"Catholic teaching is that sexuality is a God-given gift that should be reserved for marriage," the bishops wrote.

"So-called 'casual' or 'recreational' sexual activity carries with it profound risks to a young person's spiritual, emotional, moral and physical health.

"At best, a vaccine can only be potentially effective against one of these risks, that to physical health, and may have other unintended and unwanted consequences."

Most other provinces have also implemented programs and, in some jurisdictions, the move has generated controversy. At least one Catholic school board in Ontario is refusing to allow the vaccine in its schools.

Partnering with parents

Chairwoman Cindy Olsen said the Edmonton Catholic School Board supports the position of the archdiocese - and will begin implementing the vaccine program in the fall.

"We believe there's a partnership between parent, school and church and different partners have different responsibilities," said Olsen, "In the area of health, the responsibility defaults to the parent."

She said the board sees the Gardasil vaccine as being much the same as other vaccines offered to students, in that it's up to the parents to decide whether their children will receive it.

The vaccination will be made available to girls in Grade 5 in September and to girls in Grade 9 next year.

It protects against the four strains of human papillomavirus that cause 70 per cent of cervical cancers and 90 per cent of genital warts.

Parents will be asked to sign a consent form before their daughters receive the vaccine, which is administered in three shots over six months and is most effective before girls become sexually active.

The bishops' statement said there is "no general consensus that HPV vaccination is the most prudent strategy in terms of allocating the health-care resources aimed at preventing deaths from cervical cancer."

The bishops went on to urge parents to "learn the medical facts about Gardasil and its limitations before deciding whether their daughters should receive the vaccine."

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