Today brought us the news that some secondary schools are opting out of the HPV vaccination programme for girls "on religious grounds". The vaccination, offered to girls aged 12-13, guards against the strains of HPV most likely to cause cervical cancer and has had a controversial history. Opposed by people who think it will encourage teens to become promiscuous if they know they're protected against disease, it's been causing moral panic for a while now despite the fact that the idea of a vaccine making young people sexually active is, well, ridiculous. When I was at school, we didn't have the HPV vaccine. I don't remember anyone abstaining from sex because they were worried they'd catch it and therefore put themselves at risk of cervical cancer.
GP magazine found that the majority of the schools opting out of the programme did not inform local GPs of their decision, nor did they inform parents and pupils where they could be vaccinated instead. The reasons given for declining to offer the vaccine are concerning - from "Not in keeping with the school ethos" to "pupils...do not practise sex outside marriage" and "the school...does not want pupils to feel pressured by peers". All of these statements indicate that the schools in question subscribe to the belief that the HPV vaccine encourages sexual activity, which would be at odds with Christian teaching. They also indicate that the schools see sexual health as somehow irrelevant to their pupils: "Our girls aren't having sex so they don't need the vaccine!" - as if they're somehow above HPV and cervical cancer and will remain this way in the years to come.
There is absolutely no way that the schools in question are fully aware of what pupils are getting up to in their spare time and the extent to which they are or are not sexually active. As a Christian who attended a Christian school I can confidently state that abstinence was not on the agenda for most people I knew. Like the US teens who have taken "purity" pledges and then proceed to go back on their word once they start dating someone, many UK teens - no matter what they have been taught, or encouraged to believe - will go ahead and become sexually active. Attending a faith school is by no means an indicator of religious belief in the first place - I say this as someone who knew plenty of people for whom church attendance was about getting into a good school rather than acquiring a faith. What good does keeping young people in the dark do? About as much good as years of abstinence-only sex education lessons did for US youngsters: none. Are they expected to acquire knowledge about sexual health only as adults, when it might be too late for some?
Scaremongering around the issue of teens and sex while refusing to prepare them for its potential consequences is a tried and tested tactic that achieves nothing. Far better to let young people and their parents decide for themselves whether or not they wish to have the vaccine at the very least, rather than make completely unfounded assumptions about their personal lives. If it saves lives, surely it should be a no-brainer? The idea that giving young people knowledge about sex will lead to them behaving irresponsibly is unfounded and surely one that people need to get over, given the ignorance of many teens surrounding it.
Obviously vaccinations aren't compulsory but the decisions made by these schools as a result of their "ethos", or what they assume about pupils' personal lives, is putting girls at risk in later life. It's sad to see schools buying into the moral panic; this is not something they would do in the case of other vaccinations, and it implies an attitude towards sex that I'd rather not see in UK schools. As the Guardian story states, responsibility for administering the HPV vaccine will change next year, meaning that "there will no longer be any excuse for failing to protect children in this way". 2013 can't come soon enough.