In a 5-2 vote, the Yellowknife Catholic school board has decided against allowing human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination shots in its institutions. This will make it more difficult for girls to get the shots, increasing their risk for the sexually transmitted infection, which is the primary cause of cervical cancer. “This is not ideal for the work of public health,” says Sandy Lee, minister of health and social services for the Northwest Territories.
In Calgary’s Catholic schools, where the board refused to allow the shots, only one in five girls has been vaccinated against HPV (70 per cent of girls in public schools have received the shots). A similar situation could occur in Yellowknife, where girls are sexually active earlier than in most of Canada, and the rate of STIs is eight times the national average.
But Mary Vane, chair of Yellowknife’s Catholic school board, says those risks are outweighed by the right of parents to make decisions about their children’s health. “The only way to really ensure that the parents are in fact making that decision totally is to have [the shots] at public health.”
Of course, the board allows other vaccination shots, such as meningitis and hepatitis C, to be given in schools. And Rose-Marie Jackson, the school board’s vice-chair, who voted to allow the immunizations, said a phone hotline or education campaign could provide parents with what they need to make informed decisions. “I strongly feel that we need to see this as an opportunity to combine the values of our faith with the science of a sound public health measure,” she wrote in a motion to the board.
In any case, Lee says her ministry will continue to get shots to anyone who wants them, even without the participation of Catholic schools. “We are small and we can get to those Catholic girls and parents in other ways,” she says. “We need to step up our efforts to get to as many of them as possible.”