Recently, the Calgary Catholic School Board decided not to provide Genital human papillomavirus vaccines to girls in grades five and up through their schools.
Bishop Fred Henry, Calgary's Roman Catholic bishop and the moral and spiritual advisor for the Calgary Catholic School Board, reasoned that offering the vaccine for HPV -- a very common sexually transmitted infection that has been linked to cervical cancer-- could be seen as condoning pre-marital sex. Henry argued that it was inappropriate for Catholic schools to offer a vaccine that could be interpreted as promoting promiscuous behaviour.
Opponents of the decision, including Alberta Health Minister Ron Liepert, accused the Catholic School Board of putting the lives of young girls at risk.
While the moral reasoning put forth by Bishop Henry and the Catholic School Board is questionable, so are the strong-arm scare tactics used by the Alberta Health Board in their criticism of the decision not to vaccinate the girls.
Careful consideration of the facts about HPV and the vaccine shows that the health board's assertion that the Catholic School Board is "putting lives at risk" may be a gross overstatement.
There is a link between cervical cancer and HPV. Most women diagnosed with cervical cancer have had HPV at some point in their lives. However, this connection has been vastly exaggerated. In the process, the HPV vaccine has become a "cancer vaccine."
HPV vaccines protect against HPV, not against cervical cancer.
As stated by both the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, most cases of HPV infection do not lead to cervical cancer.
Further there are approximately 140 strains of HPV, of which less than 20 are considered "high risk" for the development of cervical cancer. Gardasil, the HPV vaccine approved in Canada, prevents infection from four strains of HPV, only two of which are high-risk strains.
In the furor over the Catholic School Board decision the safety and efficacy of Gardasil was never called into question.
Since the approval of Gardasil in the U.S. in 2006, there have been 9,000 reported adverse reactions to the vaccine, ranging from genital wart outbreaks to paralysis and death.
Long-term testing is required for most vaccines to ensure against long-term negative side effects. For Gardasil this long-term testing is even more important as cervical cancer may not show up for years after infection by a high risk HPV. Gardasil was pushed through the approval process before these studies could be performed.
The few long-term tests that were performed showed that Gardasil loses effectiveness after five years. This means those girls inoculated at age nine are no longer protected from HPV by fourteen.
The hasty approval granted to Gardasil by Canada Health is disconcerting, as is the speed at which the vaccine became an absolute necessity for all women between the ages of nine and 26. The most pressing questions that need to be asked in the HPV debate regard the approval and promotion of the Gardasil vaccine.
The moral reasoning used by the Catholic School Board in declining to provide the vaccine may not be valid, but the conclusion reached may not be as detrimental to the health of young girls as the Health Board believes it to be.
As asserted by both the Health Board and the Catholic School Board, the HPV vaccine debate is largely a moral issue. But the source of moral concern is not the chastity of young girls or the perception of lives saved, but the way in which Gardasil has been sold to the public.