18 Sep 2008

Winnipeg schools pick religion over HPV vaccine

Winnipeg Free Press - September 17, 2008

Four private institutions opt out of program to prevent cervical cancer

by Jen Skerritt

WINNIPEG - At least four Winnipeg private schools have opted not to vaccinate Grade 6 girls against a sexually transmitted infection linked to cervical cancer for "religious reasons."

The decision comes weeks before Manitoba Health officials roll out the controversial Gardasil vaccine in schools across the province.

Dr. Carol Kurbis, medical officer of health for the Winnipeg region, confirmed public health nurses will not attend at least four city private schools to vaccinate 11 and 12-year-old girls against human papillomavirus (HPV) next month.

Kurbis would not name the schools, but said their decision was for "religious reasons."

"We don't have any ability to force them into the program and those schools have actually been co-operative in still distributing information out to parents," Kurbis said. "There's four or five, and they're relatively small schools."

The province's $10.8-million HPV vaccine program is set to launch in Winnipeg schools the first week of October.

Researchers still have no idea when the immunity against HPV wears off and some critics believe mass promotion could lead some women to believe they're protected against other sexually transmitted infections, like the potentially deadly HIV.

Some parent groups worry the vaccine sends the wrong message and may encourage preteen girls to engage in sexual activity.

Robert Praznik, director of education for the Archdiocese of Winnipeg, said he can't understand why certain schools would opt out of the vaccination program. Praznik said the Archdiocese has directed the 14 local Catholic elementary schools to leave the question of whether to vaccinate preteen girls against HPV up to parents.

"I know there are other independent schools that have made that choice, but I don't know why," Praznik said. "It's up to parents to decide."

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus with more than 100 different strains. Most people who develop an HPV infection will clear it from their bodies naturally, but certain types can cause genital warts or cancer.

The vaccine guards against two types - 16 and 18 - that researchers believe are responsible for up to 70 per cent of cervical cancer cases.

Kurbis said health officials have distributed 3,500 consent forms to schools across Manitoba, along with information about Gardasil so parents can decide whether or not to vaccinate their daughters. In some schools, the HPV vaccine will be given to Grade 6 girls at the same time Grade 4 students are vaccinated against hepatitis B and meningococcal meningitis.

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