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Catholics up in arms over vaccine for students

Christine Grimard and Cara Loverock
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, October 17, 2007

YELLOWKNIFE - Yellowknife parent and practising Catholic, Louise Debogorski, says her children's school should be encouraging abstinence, not vaccinating students for a sexually transmitted disease.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

Reanna Erasmus, left, and other board members heard from public health nurses Karen Martin, Rachel Nolting, Nancy Trotter and Amy Lea that the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine could be available to students in the NWT schools next fall. - Christine Grimard/NNSL photo

"That's what we teach our children, to be abstinent," said Debogorski.

Yellowknife Catholic Schools (YCS), however, is faced with that very dilemma.

A vaccine for the sexually transmitted disease Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer in women, could be distributed among NWT schools as early as next fall.

While funding for the vaccine still has yet to be approved by the territorial government, Kern Von Hagen, the Yellowknife Catholic Schools superintendent, said the school board has been sharing information on the vaccine, knowing that the question of its use is bound to come up at some point.

The Catholic Church and the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute have both taken a stance against mandatory or mass approaches to the vaccination, saying the disease is preventable by other means, primarily by teaching abstinence.

"There's several ethical questions that have to be addressed," said Hagen. "Sexual intercourse is something the church views is reserved for marriage. If young people are not sexually active, they won't contract (the disease)."

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus spread to women by men who are carriers. Although males can get infected and suffer from genital warts, it is only females who may develop cancer as a result of the infection.

The proposed HPV vaccine protects against four types out of more than 100 strains of the virus.

"This vaccine protects against two of the most common types that cause cancer and it's estimated that it would protect or prevent about 70 per cent of cervical cancers," said Dr. Andre Corriveau, chief medical officer of the Northwest Territories.

He said the vaccine is most effective when administered to girls before they become sexually active.

While it's uncertain how the vaccine would be administered if approved, Kay Lewis, CEO of the Yellowknife Health and Social Services Authority, said the vaccine could be administered through the school system.

While the governments of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, P.E.I and Ontario offer the vaccine free of charge to girls ages 9 to 13, Catholic school boards in those provinces are still deciding whether to allow the vaccination program into schools.

The Toronto Catholic District school board voted in favour of the vaccination program last month, while other Catholic school boards are still discussing the issue.

As with any vaccination program in the territory, parents would have the option not to have their children vaccinated, said Lewis.

With this option in place, Yellowknife's public school board, Yellowknife Education District No. 1, doesn't expect to have objections to a vaccination program.

"I think it's something parents are requesting," said Reanna Erasmus, vice-chair of Yk No. 1 board.

"It's a service that the school board provides."

John Stephenson, chair of the J. H. Sissons school parent advisory committee, said he has asked public health nurses to attend one of their meetings in November.

"I'll be keen to hear what the public health nurses have to say," said Stephenson, who has two daughters in the school system.

Parent Miles Welsh, who has a daughter at the Catholic St. Patrick high school, said the decision should ultimately rest with parents.

"Just because the service is offered, doesn't mean it's being forced on you," said Welsh.

The territorial government is waiting for more information from the Canadian Immunization Committee, which is assessing the cost effectiveness of an HPV vaccination program, before deciding whether or not to cover the cost of the vaccine. The HPV vaccine, which is administered in three doses, costs around $430. The committee's report is expected in November.

"The other issue for us in the North is that we don't really have good data about whether the strains that the vaccine protects you against are the same ones up North as they might be down south," said Corriveau.

He said a study is planned this year to examine which strains are actually circulating among women in the Northwest Territories.

Currently, there are no statistics available on how many women have HPV in the NWT, said Corriveau.

"HPV was not a reportable disease so all we have is incidental evidence, in terms of how many people have normal pap smears because we know most abnormal pap smears, if not all of them, are related to an HPV infection that's underlying it," he said. "But it's not an HPV test and it doesn't tell us anything about the specifics of which strain it is."

Corriveau said that studies have shown about 90 per cent of genital warts would be prevented by the HPV vaccine.

The vaccine does not protect against other sexually transmitted viruses, such as HIV, and there are no known long-term side effects to the vaccination.