Faith schools, moral panic, and the HPV vaccine

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

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 " 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.


Katie said...

Totally agree. Although, I had my vaccine a few years ago in Scotland, and this issue was never raised at all. Having gone to a very high-achieving cambridgeshire school before moving to Scotland, I have noticed a huge change in how 'protective' people are. Most people here got it without question. The only controversy I ever heard was some theories that it did more harm than good (or worse, why bother because it only protects against one strain - yeah well, what if you got that strain?!) As a christian I never once considered not having it because I wasn't planning on having sex with anyone other than my husband. I was more concerned with protecting myself. I had a few friends who opted out because of the usual scaremongering around new injections, but I must admit, I didn't think about it too much - until afterwards when my arm was in agony!

Katie said...

Not saying that people here don't care! There's just a lot less of a health&safety crazy, cotton-wool, over-protective parents etc culture I have found.

Anonymous said...

There of many of us who would consider the 'moral' aspect of the vaccine a moot issue because first of all, looking at the statistics of the disease itself and comparing the percentage of those who contract it as opposed to the number that have any serious effects from the disease (very small indeed) and weighing the damage that vaccines in general cause versus the benefits of any supposed protection from them, getting the vaccine, so the real moral panic here is the perception that the vaccine is what will save you. To be blunt, with no actual studies to support the use of it and the already legion of levels of damage done by it, getting the vaccine is a truly bad idea. I certainly would not subject my daughters (or even more ridiculously, my sons) nor my grandchildren to the danger of this attempt for the pharmaceutical industry to make a buck by using irrational fear on an unsuspecting public. Benny Sanders


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