REGINA — Saskatchewan Catholic Schools started the school year with some controversy over a letter included in the information package that all students received. The letter was from the Saskatchewan bishops and cautioned parents with regard to their moral obligations and their right to choose to have their children vaccinated with the HPV vaccine. The letter has been part of the student information package for the past 10 years and had not been updated with current studies of the human papillomavirus vaccine and the advantages to children, both female and male, in receiving this vaccine.
The report of a protest in Saskatoon of this outdated letter prompted an aggressive media call for an explanation by the Regina archdiocese and the director of education. The offending letter had been written as advice to Catholic parents and stated that the vaccine could create a false sense of security and encourage risky sexual behaviour.
The letter also stated that the vaccine prevents 70 per cent of infections that could lead to cervical cancer and that the long-term effect of the vaccine on young children is unknown. It argued that parents should have the final say on whether their children are vaccinated and encouraged them to review the evidence in order to make an informed decision. The letter also promoted the church’s teaching on chastity and abstinence from sexual activity before marriage and a faithful, monogamous union in marriage as the surest way to good health.
Regina archdiocesan theologian Brett Salkeld, with the approval of the bishops, responded publicly to the protest and said, in part, “That letter should never have gone out. It contains outdated and inaccurate information.”
An updated letter referencing the HPV vaccine was issued from the Saskatchewan bishops, dated Oct. 5, and said the bishops sincerely regret the confusion caused by the outdated letter that was part of the student information package. They referred to recent conversations with health professionals and concerned parents and current research documents that describe the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine against cervical and other forms of cancer, notably throat cancer in boys, which has been on the rise in recent years. The bishops reiterated their original advice to parents and responsible adults that they inform themselves by consulting the evidence and make a decision according to their conscience and their faith. A link to those studies is provided in their letter.
The bishops stated that they were encouraged by research findings that showed there was no increase in risky sexual behaviour among those children who have been vaccinated with the HPV vaccine. As was stated in the original letter, the bishops’ position on parental choice and the virtue of chastity did not change with their learning of newer science. The letter stressed that chastity is and always will be a virtue worth proposing and modelling for young people, stating, “It is a way of life that brings value and joy.” The bishops stated they were grateful for the unconditional love modelled by parents for their children and would strive to support their best decisions.
The vaccine has been available for Grade 6 girls in the province since 2008. This year the vaccine was made available to Grade 6 boys. It is usually administered when the child is in Grade 6 which, it is believed, is an age before sexual activity might begin.