As the Saskatchewan government prepares to offer boys a vaccine for the human papillomavirus, the Bishops of Saskatchewan are pushing back.
In a letter to parents and the Catholic School Board on Monday, the bishops expressed concern about the proposed publicly funded HPV vaccination program in schools.
"Although the provincial government is putting significant resources into a public vaccination program, we are all aware that availability does not mean that everyone must take part," read the letter from the Bishops of Saskatchewan.
"Scientific evidence supports the ethical stance that responsible sexual behaviour, abstinence until marriage and then a faithful, monogamous union are the surest way to good health," the letter stated.
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The vaccination program has been offered to Grade 6 girls in the province since 2008. This year marks the first time the vaccination will be available to boys. The $750,000 expansion to the program was announced in the spring budget.
A moral question
Domenic Scuglia, the director of education for the Regina Catholic School Division, would not confirm whether the division requested the letter to be sent out.
He said that the decision to vaccinate a child is a moral one, and reiterated that the church's position is to encourage abstinence until marriage.
"I think the moral issue is around the fact that students will choose to engage in sexual activity when they're not properly prepared," he said.
"That's why we're encouraging students to wait."
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The Canadian Cancer Society's Donna Pasiechnik said a study, which followed more than a quarter of a million girls in Ontario for nearly five years, found no increase in sexual activity by those who had had the vaccine.
"This is about protecting your child from cancer through a simple, safe, effective vaccination," Pasiechnik said.
"For us, that it what this is about."
Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, echoed Pasiechnik, saying "numerous" studies over the past 10 years have repeatedly shown the HPV vaccine does not change sexual behaviour.
Scuglia would not comment on this research.
"We strongly recommend the HPV vaccine for all children in Grade 6," Shahab said.
He added that in addition to immunization, delaying sexual activity, limiting sexual partners and always using condoms is "just good advice for young people," and reduces the risk of HPV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Parents to get update
Health officials recommend the vaccine as a way to prevent numerous cancers in adults — from cervical cancer in women to mouth cancer in men. Shahab said that men are three times more likely to contract head and neck cancer from HPV than women.
The letter only mentions the vaccine's ability to combat cervical cancer — something Scuglia said was an oversight.
The letter also said while the vaccine may prevent infections that could lead to cancer, scientific support for the vaccine "is still at an early stage. Long-term effects are unknown."
Scuglia said the division will be sending out an updated letter to parents that will contain "new information that also includes the males.
"We will be communicating an update to our parents as soon as possible."