EDMONTON - A group that has been urging Catholic school boards to lift bans against a vaccine that protects girls from a virus that causes deadly cervical cancer is claiming victory.
HPV Canada says after almost two years of lobbying, the last of 12 public boards has agreed to allow girls to have in-school access to the vaccine with parental permission.
Juliet Guichon, an HPV Canada spokeswoman, says the last hold-out was the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School District in Leduc, Alta.
Guichon says this means that the vaccine is now available in every publicly funded school district in Canada.
The vaccine protects against human papillomaviruses, which cause cervical cancer, head and neck cancers, anal and penile cancers and genital warts.
Guichon said the organization of citizens, parents, physicians and scientists achieved its goal by talking directly with officials at the hold-out school boards in Alberta, Ontario and the Northwest Territories.
"Our argument was consistently the health and well-being of children — that children were entitled to have easy access to a health program to which their parents had consented," she said.
Guichon said HPV Canada had to counter arguments that the vaccine would promote promiscuity or would undermine the teaching of abstinence.
She said no one could find any scientific studies or evidence that suggested that was true.
In the end HPV Canada said their most compelling argument was that the decision on whether a child should get the shots should be made by parents, not school boards.
Guichon said they also had to make it clear to school boards that leaving it to families to seek the vaccine outside of school would be unfair to people on low incomes. Although the vaccine has always been free, having to go to public health clinics means making appointments and arranging transportation — things not always easy for people with little money.
"Now poor kids will have as easy access as rich kids to this vaccine because it will be available in schools," said Guichon, who is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary's medical school.
Alberta was one of the last provinces to approve the HPV vaccine for girls. The move was opposed by some 10 Catholic school boards in the province on moral grounds.
In November 2012, the Calgary Catholic School Board reconsidered its opposition and voted to allow school-based HPV vaccinations for girls.
The Alberta government is now planning to include boys in free school vaccinations to protect them from the virus starting this fall, following the lead of Prince Edward Island.
Dr. James Talbot, Alberta's chief medical health officer, has said research has shown almost all head and neck cancers in men under 40 are HPV-related.
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada has been urging other provinces to include boys in HPV vaccine programs.
Guichon said HPV Canada will now look at lobbying private schools to allow students to have access to HPV vaccination.