Why Schools Mustn’t ‘Recklessly’ Deny Girls the HPV Vaccine
July 25, 2012
The Fresh Outlook
Sian Norris discusses why it is important not to deny young girls the HPV vaccine and how education is paramount.
It was revealed in the news last week that 24 schools across the UK have been denying girls the HPV vaccine – the injection that protects them from the HPV virus that causes cervical cancer – on religious grounds. These religious grounds are that because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, protecting girls from it will lead to them becoming promiscuous and ‘sexually active’.
The HPV vaccine was introduced a couple of years ago to immunise women from some of the strands of the HPV virus that can cause cervical cancer. More accurately, it protects against those which cause 70% of cervical cancers. Because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, it was decided that girls should be vaccinated at ages 12-13, because it is likely that they are not yet sexually active at that age. I remember well the outrage in certain sections of the media at this, who protested that by vaccinating girls against at STD when they were still children, we would be ‘removing the dangers’ of promiscuous sex and ‘sexualising young girls’. The Press Complaints Commission were also involved in ruling on a number of scare-mongering stories that linked the HPV vaccine erroneously to young women becoming ill or, in some tragic cases, dying.
All of these schools claim that they refuse to give the vaccine because it doesn’t reflect the Christian ethos of the school – the ethos being that sex outside of marriage is a sin. They claim:
“There is already evidence that the vaccine is giving some girls a false sense of security and leading them to think that because they have been vaccinated they are protected against the worst effects of sexual promiscuity and can therefore engage in casual sex without consequence.”
Where this evidence is no-one knows. It doesn’t get cited, because it doesn’t exist. But the thing that strikes me most about this quote is the phrase ‘the worst effects of sexual promiscuity’. Now, to me, the worst effects of having sex are STDs. Particularly STDs that can kill you. This is why it is so important we do everything we can to make sure that no-one is at risk of contracting horrible and dangerous illnesses: free condoms; comprehensive and intelligent sex education. And, if we have a vaccine that can do that, then we need to use it to protect young women.
But for these schools, the worst affects of having sex is the promiscuity in itself. It’s the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with sex outside of marriage in itself, that sex outside of marriage is morally wrong.
We all know from America that teaching abstinence-only education does not stop young people having sex. Young people have a very natural and normal sexuality that they are going to want to explore. Some may choose to wait until marriage, and that is fine, and some won’t. Although I don’t agree with it, I can understand a school teaching about why you might want to wait, why you might even want to wait until marriage. But this has to be coupled with education about consent, respect, and how to look after your body. It has to include education about contraception. Most young people will have sex whether we want them to or not, so we have a duty to prepare them, to help them negotiate their sexuality in a positive way. In countries where young people aren’t taught about contraception, then the rates of STDs and unwanted pregnancy are high. In the US, at the height of Bush’s abstinence-only funding regime, there were 80 teen pregnancies per 1000 (compared to Holland, a country which has good sex education, with only 12 per 1000. Most countries in western Europe are less than 40 per 1000*. In the US, one in four people under 25 have an STD.
We have a duty of care to young people, particularly in a school. It is perfectly possible to teach that you might want to wait, but still say here’s a vaccine that will protect you from a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cancer. Having a jab is not going to cause you to have sex. Having unprotected sex when you haven’t had the jab may cause you to get cancer. All these schools are doing is burying their heads in the sand at the expense of the health of the girls in their care.
My final point is that all the abstinence education and banning of vaccines in the world aren’t going to make the slightest difference if a girl or woman is raped.
And, considering that half of young girls in an NSPCC study with Bristol University reported being victims of sexual violence, and in a recent Mumsnet survey it was reported that 1 in 10 UK women have been raped this is, sadly, a common occurrence.
It is outrageous that schools are playing so recklessly with girls’ health – girls’ lives – because of a religious ethos.
Last year, 957 women died from cervical cancer. We now have a way to protect women from this horrible disease. We need to use it.
*Stats from page 161 of Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy
Sian Norris is a columnist for The Fresh Outlook. She is a feminist campaigner and writer. She co-ordinates the Bristol Feminist Network and has written for a range of publications, including the Guardian, Rockfeedback, The F Word, UK Feminista as well as her own blog, www.sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.co.uk