News / Calgary

Calgary Catholic students flock to HPV vaccine despite past controversy

Seventy per cent of Calgary Catholic families being offered a school-based program to vaccinate their daughters against human papillomavirus (HPV) are jumping at the chance.

Data provided by Alberta Health Services on Monday indicates consent forms sent out after Calgary Catholic School District approved an immunization program in November came back signed from parents of 1,242 girls in Grade 5 and 449 girls in Grade 9.

The trustees had previously refrained from offering the program for four years at the urging of spiritual leader Bishop Fred Henry despite every other metropolitan Catholic school district in Canada going ahead with the publicly funded measure.

Students taking part in the program  received their first vaccination against the virus, which studies have widely linked to cervical cancer, in December and are currently awaiting second and third immunizations before summertime.

Dr. Richard Musto, AHS zone lead medical officer of health, said the rate of uptake for the program is similar to that found in public schools, where the vaccine has been offered since 2008.

"We had hoped we would be in the same ballpark," he said.

Controversy over the district's stance on the vaccine took centre-stage again last fall as advocacy group HPV Calgary — made up of concerned parents, physicians and cervical cancer survivors — threatened to launch a legal challenge alleging charter rights were being violated.

Representative Juliet Guichon said Monday she found the program's popularity to date "immensely gratifying," but added it should have been launched long ago.

"It's a shame the trustees chose to prevent it and we don't know the outcome," she said. "We don't know which children will be affected by that prevention."

AHS also offered a one-time vaccination to 365 Grade 12 students in an attempt to play catchup with students missed during the four-year abstention from the vaccination program.

Catholic school district spokesperson Janet Corsten said it's possible some students that did not sign on for the school-based program had already begun receiving vaccinations in community health clinics, meaning the actual percentage of girls immunized could be slightly higher.

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