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The Catholic school board won't allow the HPV vaccine to be administered in its schools because Calgary's bishop did not want to appear to be condoning premarital sex. ((Harry Cabluck/Associated Press))

Calgary health officials are worried about the low turnout among Catholic girls for a vaccine that protects against a virus that causes cervical cancer.

The province has been providing the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine free of charge to Grade 5 girls since last fall. Parents can opt out if they want.

Health officials have given the vaccine to 70 per cent of girls in the public system, which allows it in the schools. But less than 20 per cent of girls in the city's Catholic school system have gotten the vaccine.

The Catholic school board won't allow the vaccine to be administered in the schools because Calgary's bishop did not want to appear to be condoning premarital sex. Parents wanting their daughters to get the vaccine have to take them to a health clinic.

The Calgary Catholic School District is the largest in Alberta and serves 44,000 students in Calgary, Airdrie, Cochrane, Chestermere and Rocky View.

Parents will 'walk over hot coals' if they want vaccine, says board

Marge Belcourt, a spokeswoman with the Catholic school board, said the board stands by its decision.

"Most parents, if they think it's something their child needs or wants, they'll walk over hot coals to make sure their child gets it," she said.

The low turnout among Catholics concerns Calgary deputy medical health officer Dr. Judy McDonald, who says vaccine programs reach more people if they are offered in schools.

"This is a vaccine that prevents cervical cancer. That's the bottom line," she said.

Laura Wershler, a spokeswoman with Sexual Health Access Alberta, said if the Catholic board allowed nurses to administer the vaccine in their schools, the numbers would have been closer.

"It was probably an unfortunate decision," she said. "For the vast number of Catholic families that support the vaccine, it would have been much simpler and appropriate to make it available in the schools."

The vaccine will be offered again next week at clinics and public schools. Grade 9 girls will be offered the vaccine starting in September 2009.