Wednesday, 6 May 2009

More schools than expected are declining to offer the HPV vaccine

Now this is a little bit weird.

Back in February we had media coverage telling us that only 40 schools nationwide had either declined to offer the HPV vaccine or had not yet replied.

This week we find out that in fact 78 schools have refused to participate in the programme (Crochetted beanie with a bobble on top tipped to reader Am via Facebook). That's nearly double.

Am I reading this right? This must mean that of the 40 who had either said no or hadn't yet replied in February all must have said no. And a further 38 schools must have changed from a committed yes to a no. Which begs the obvious question: why?

The 78 schools represent around 5% of all schools eligible to participate in the vaccination programme which is aimed at radically lowering the rate of women who contract the HPV virus and are thus at risk of cervical cancer later in life. Some will have chosen to opt out for logistic reasons, such as small rural schools, and others for "religious reasons"*. Women's Health Action have raised concerns that the vaccination programme has been rolled out too quickly and without sufficient research. There have been concerns raised about adverse reactions, giving DHBs access to school records, and insufficient information for parents. I can understand why a school might decide against offering the vaccine, although I adamantly disagree with that decision.

But why does it seem that a whopping 38 schools have changed their minds?

I've put an Official Information Act request in to the Ministries of Health and Education to find out which schools have opted out, and their reasons for doing so. That might take a while. In the meantime it would be really nice if a journalist could ask why the number refusing to offer the vaccine doubled between February and May.

* I'm sure there are some religious reasons that are based around medical treatment and/or vaccination in general. However I've yet to see any religious reason offered publicly which has not boiled down to "keeping girls safe from a sexually transmitted infection will make sex less scary for them."


A Nonny Moose said...

When I read the paragraph about just what "adverse reactions" people were afraid of happening, the biggest case seemed to be 10 girls fainting.


If you're uptight about getting needles stuck into you (like I am), you're going to breath shallow and lock your knees. It's not the vaccine itself that's going to make you faint.

The poor girl is too fragile to take a needle? Wonderful grounds for not giving it to her.

Though my favourite excuse had to be because girls that age are too "sexually naive". Oh yes, I see you want to keep them that way.

Anna said...

Is there anyone lurking about who can comment on the legitemacy of safety concerns about the vaccination?

The fainting thing sounds a bit dubious. Having injections isn't much fun for kids, but dealing with them is a pretty crucial life skill, and they hurt a lot less than cancer I suspect.

How does the OIA request work, Julie? Are schools obliged to put on record why they've declined?

I don't much like this attitude that we need to ensure girls are scared of sex for their own good. How is that supposed to encourage girls' capacity for informed decision-making?

Janet said...

In Australia where the HPV vaccination was rolled out in high schools 2 years ago there were reports of arm numbness and temporary paralysis. There was some hysterical reporting about how there was this terrible unknown side effect etc etc.

Looking back now at the injections I remember having I think most injections physically cause discomfort. And given that you're jabbing a needle in a living organism some temporary disruption of normal function would be possible.

As I remember no serious problems were reported in the media.

Trouble said...

There's always a proportion of people who get reactions to vaccines - and by reactions, they mean sore arms, fainting and in this instance one case of mild anaphylaxis that came right pretty quickly, according to the papers. That's why they ask you to hang around after you've had a shot. But that's what happens with any vaccine. I get a sore arm for a couple of days but that doesn't stop me getting flu shots every year.

Back when you got a rubella shot separately from mumps and measles, it was offered only to 11 year old girls in order to get to them before they could have babies affected by rubella. Does anyone recall whether anyone back then said it was giving girls a free pass to have sex, or is this a modern form of derangement? Back then, I suppose, it was the Pill giving girls a free pass, and people were still too familiar with preventable infectious diseases to have the luxury of anti-vax panic. Rubella killed and damaged tens of thousands of fetuses in utero between 1962 and 1965. MMR was introduced because only vaccinating girls didn't work - the disease survived among men and was therefore very easily passed to unvaccinated women. I wonder if they'll decide the same about HPV one day.

A Nonny Moose said...

Huzzah Dita:

Trouble: Funny you mention the Rubella injections of 25 years ago - I was JUST thinking about that. I was there, I was that age, I had one, and I don't recall there being any furore over it giving girls a free pass to sex - but then I was a)pretty well educated by my parents b) ignorant of the media. Also, in my personal circumstance my parents were ADAMANT I got it, because my dad had suffered in utero from Rubella.

I think the "free pass to sex" argument is more used on HPV because it's only protecting your RIGHT to have sex. Rubella vaccine was to protect your future baby.

Julie said...

I'm not sure about what response I'm going to get the OIA request (and I've never made one before so there's a possibility that I've stuffed it up and it'll take even longer). I've asked for both a list of the schools who have declined, and the suburb they are in, and a list of the reasons given. I have no idea if they're obliged to give reasons, but once I have a list of names I can always contact schools to find out their reasons.

Trouble said...

Providing the Ministries have the reasons the schools aren't participating, you should be ok. They might not.

Reducing the risk of HPV takes away one of the Big Scaries abstinence campaigners use to put young people off having sex. So does teaching young people how to competently have safer sex. If they ever invent an HIV vaccine, bet your bottom dollar it will face strenuous opposition from the same people.

Interestingly, the Vatican doesn't like the rubella vaccine because the virus is grown from a cell-line from a fetus aborted in the 60s. They call on fathers of families and doctors to campaign for alternatives to be made available, but stop short of saying pregnant women should risk rubella to make that point.

Giovanni said...

However I've yet to see any religious reason offered publicly which has not boiled down to "keeping girls safe from a sexually transmitted infection will make sex less scary for them.

I can't believe I'm about to defend religious schools (nobody please tell my mum!), but here goes: I think most of them would argue that this kind of decision is the family's to make, not the school's. And it bears repeating of course that families of young girls whose schools aren't participating can get the vaccination through their GP.

stargazer said...

but giovanni, the families still make the decision where schools offer the vaccination. it's not like there is any force involved here. and going to the GP is an extra trip with (presumably) an added cost, whereas these kids go to school every day. by not offering it at school, there is reduced access.

Giovanni said...

I'm not disputing any of that, I'm just offering what I think may be the rationale - anything that comes within a nautical mile of the sphere of sexuality is for the family to deal with, and the school shouldn't be seen as facilitating a particular decision. (Although, by teaching religious morality... but let's not go there.)

Anna said...

I wonder if any of the declining schools will distribute info to parents - ie letting them know how to get the vaccination, if not through school?

Trouble said...

Surely telling kids that sexual purity until marriage is the best protection against disease falls within the nautical mile limit of parents' proper terrain, and that's what at least one opting-out school has said. Sending your kids to a religious school doesn't imply you've handed them over to the sole custody of the church for their moral instruction.

Anna said...

Is sex education in school compulsory? If so, it's more difficult to justify not offering the vaccination on the grounds that sexuality stuff is the province of the family. I'd assume that for some Christian parents, the distinction would be between educating kids on the unadorned facts of life, and educating in a way which might be construed as encouraging kids to have sex. That's a giant grey area, though, since some argue that even acknowledging homosexuality in the context of sex ed is encouraging vice.

I wonder if this issue would be treated differently if the vaccination was for boys? I've got a feeling there's an expectation that boys will always want sex, safe or otherwise, and that we have to equip girls to make the 'sensible' decisions on behalf of both sexes.

Giovanni said...

I thought the whole point of sending one's children to a Christian school was to delay the time when they would be told about sex? Although le figlie di Maria son la prime a darla via , etc.

The ex-expat said...

Sex education in schools is not compulsory.

Anna said...

Well, there's a whole other thing that irks me.

Cat said...

FWIW, I've heard a lot of ads on the radio advertising the vaccine, asking parents to talk about it and noting that it's free. I'm pretty sure (although not 100%) that it is also free it you get it from your doctor.

I went to Catholic school, and I remember having a talk about periods and changes to bodies etc, but not sex specifically. We had one girl in our class who was from a particularly religious family, and she was taken out of the class for that talk.

Anonymous said...

There is a new book on the HPV vaccine: The HPV Vaccine Controversy- Sex, Cancer, God and Politics which gives an overview of HPV infections and an unbiased opinion of the vaccines. It is authored by Shobha S. Krishnan, M.D, Barnard college, Columbia University. The book is available at and Barnes and and is written without the influence of any pharmaceutical company or special interest groups. Link to the book:

Julie said...

I haven't had an email or anything acknowledging my OIA request, does anyone know if that's normal or does it suggest I wazn't doing it right?

AWicken said...

The thing that I don't get is why anyone has to say to the child "and THIS injection will help prevent you from getting cancer if you have unprotected sex with more than one partner - here's some leaflets called 'unprotected sex, the best way for an adolescent to have fun'".

For god's sake, I have no real idea about the virus specifics or even symptoms of pretty much every vaccine I've ever had, so why does the child have to be told anything more than "and this will prevent some types of cancer when you're older, but you still shouldn't smoke"?