Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Gardasil, Religion and Scare Tactics

Did the Calgary Catholic School board have the right idea when it refused to participate in the nation-wide vaccination said to prevent cervical cancer in young women? Last September, members of the board voted not to make the vaccine called Gardasil available free of charge to Grade 5 girls in its school system. Across Canada, girls between the ages of 9 and 15 were being targeted for vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV) which has the ability to cause cervical cancer in women.

Gardasil has been under scrutiny from health officials and the public alike since its inception. Among topics within the debate of cross-country immunization is the issue of whether or not enough comprehensive research has been done on the vaccine to call for nation-wide action. One representative of Merck Frosst (Gardasil's manufacturer) suggests that concerns regarding the safety of the drug are small in scale, stating that the drugs' effectiveness is a scientifically proven fact. Another claim made in favor of Gardasil is that it has been approved for use in 110 countries. Some Canadian health professionals, however, are worried that the approval was pushed through too quickly; that there has not been enough time to enforce education about the vaccine along with alternative measures for preventing infection. Other concerns are that there has not been nearly enough research done to calculate the long term effects of vaccination against HPV.

Perhaps the Catholic School Board did make a smart decision by opting out of this one. Yes, the school board's motive for doing so was primarily rooted in the soil of religious morale, but I'm beginning to understand the social responsibility involved in the decision as well. Not only has the school board decided -somewhat intelligently- to keep its hands off of this touchy issue, but it has also apparently pledged that it will freely direct parents toward information on the vaccine outside of its doors.

Even as a non-Catholic woman, I appreciate that the school board has chosen to leave it up to the parents to decide what's best. I think the decision alleviates the pressure to get the vaccination while it's free and allows parents to do as much of their own research as they want to before deciding. On the other hand, it can't be denied that the fearful society we live in encourages the "better safe than sorry" method of action; the method that leaves many of us paranoid about what will happen if we don't snap up any chances we're given to avoid health complications. With huge marketing campaigns telling us that we are doomed if we do not conform, or participate, or vaccinate, or comply with the suggestions they make, it's difficult to take the alternative stance on pressing matters like this one.

For those wanting to know more about ongoing HPV research in Canada, an interesting article in Calgary's local FFWD magazine was published in last week's issue with commentary from Sexual Health Access Alberta's Laura Wershler.

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