December 11, 2009
Canada's concerted effort to vaccinate girls against human papillomavirus (HPV) reached two-thirds of Edmonton's Grade 5 girls last year, a figure that health officials are striving to exceed.
The four virus strains addressed by the vaccine are estimated to cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts.
"I don't know why you wouldn't want to give it to your child," said Kristine Fersovich, daughter of a cervical cancer survivor who herself underwent successful surgery for the disease five years ago. Fersovich says her daughter will receive the vaccine when she reaches Grade 5 at Edmonton's St. Martha Catholic Elementary School.
The vaccine is offered for free, and public health nurses are available to come to schools to administer the shots. In schools that invited the nurses to administer the shots, 68.5 percent of Grade 5 girls received all three doses of the vaccine, said Dr. Barbara Romanowski, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Alberta.
In Edmonton schools that did not allow public health nurses in to administer the shots on campus, the completion rate was much lower -- 18.7 percent, Romanowski said.
Bishops overseeing Catholic schools in five Alberta districts, including Calgary, advised that making the vaccine available to young girls essentially condoned premarital sex. In public schools in Calgary, 75 percent of the girls were vaccinated, while in the separate school system, 38 percent received the vaccine.
"I don't understand if the low numbers are related to 'HPV is an STD and my daughter will never get one of those so she doesn't need to be vaccinated,' or 'This is a new vaccine and I'm not comfortable,'" Romanowski said.
The current year's campaign is complicated by simultaneous efforts to distribute the H1N1 vaccine. Initiation of the HPV shots was delayed from November to January, which pushed the third shot to June, when students are busy wrapping up the school year.