Jul 11, 2012
Author: Otto Akkerman
Four years ago, five Catholic Bishops in Calgary decided to keep the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination out of Calgary Catholic schools. Since the decision, a consortium of physicians, parents, and researchers calling themselves HPV Calgary have fought the Catholic School District to overturn the ban and make the HPV vaccine available within Catholic schools in Calgary.
Thus far, HPV Calgary’s efforts have not been successful despite a recent public awareness campaign to have the ban lifted by June 30th.
HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer, the 3rd most common cancer in women, and not having the HPV vaccine is one of the biggest
risk factors in contracting cervical cancer. The vaccine is clinically proven to reduce not only the incidence of cervical cancer, but also mortality rates from cervical cancer. This was the rationale for making the vaccine available through the public school system in the first place and why it is available in school districts across the county, including Catholic districts.
HPV is a sexually transmitted disease.
As such, the Bishops argue that making the vaccine available in schools will result in promiscuity. It appears what they feel is a risk of promiscuity outweighs the clinically proven health benefits (including reduced mortality) of the HPV vaccine. The argument is absolutely absurd on multiple levels, and in my opinion, disturbing.
Making a vaccine available that prevents contracting a virus that is transmitted sexually is not a cause of promiscuity. Promiscuity is a behaviour and lifestyle that
people choose to engage and those decisions are ultimately rooted in their social values and priorities. The study and understanding of people’s social values, how they form, and the role they play at defining who we are and the decisions we make has been at the core of Environics Research since our founding over 40 years ago. Values develop over years and while they evolve, they don’t suddenly change. The notion that the availability of the HPV vaccine will change young people’s values in a way that results in promiscuous behaviour, in my opinion, makes little sense.
In looking at the arguments made by the Calgary Catholic Bishops through various media, I have not seen any evidence linking vaccine availability to promiscuity, which
suggests to me there is none. However, for arguments sake, let’s say there is evidence that shows making the HPV vaccine available in schools leads to increased promiscuity. Then we need to look at the trade off, which is a higher rate of contracting cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is treatable, but regrettably, also has a rate of mortality.
This is not in question as clinical data exists to confirm this fact. So even if we, for arguments sake, said that the availability of the HPV vaccine in schools leads to increased promiscuity, are the Calgary Catholic bishops saying they’d rather see more women get cancer? I hope not, but that’s what the argument certainly sounds like to me.
On June 28, Time Magazine published an article on this situation in Calgary. Through Environics’ Social Media Monitor for Vaccines, (http://vaccine.nexalive.com) we’ve been following the conversation and reaction to the Time article “Canada Bishops Ban HPV Vaccine For Catholic School Girls”.
A review of the conversation in Twitter regarding this issue provided some interesting perspective:
The Time Magazine article link was the most popular link Tweeted in conversations relating to vaccines or immunization the week following its release (June 28-July 5).
Twitter activity in general for vaccines and immunization jumped from an average of 260 Tweets per day prior to June 28 to 1,785 Tweets per day the week that followed. Approximately half that activity related to the news of a potential smoking vaccine with the balance primarily relating to the Time article. The number of
Tweets per Tweeter was below 2 which indicates the issue resonated with a very wide range of people.
We could find no Tweets with content in support of the decision to ban the HPV vaccine from schools during this period.
Tweets generally criticized the decision. However, what’s more interesting is that the major theme around the comments and criticism was that people did not look at
the decision by 5 Bishops in isolation. Rather, people referenced the decision in the broader context of the Catholic Church.
Common reactions and responses include:
“Catholic Bishops compromise women’s health by a gross misinterpretation of Humanae vitea but mostly ignorance” @clintspringer
“why does the catholic church feel the need to constantly involve themselves with our viginas and ovaries?” @anins
“Catholic Bishops side themselves with pedophiles AND NOW CANCER!” @HugAnAtheist
“I’m Catholic &this is disturbing to me on so many levels” @amymariekc
The above comments were selected based on their popularity through Retweets. If there were any positive or supportive comments to the Catholic Bishop’s decision to bad the HPV vaccine in schools, I would have listed them for balance.
While the social media reaction to the issue has taken on a broader criticism of the Catholic Church, I think the real issue is one of public health. The HPV vaccine offers clear health benefits that are confirmed by clinical science and data. We also know that the school system is most effective way of increasing immunization rates.
The decision to ban the HPV vaccine from Catholic schools in Calgary was one made by five men with no medical training acting on interests not in line with public health and safety.
It is exactly why religion, regardless of denomination or faith, should not be part of these decisions, in my opinion.