Chester school pupils are taking part in a controversial vaccination programme. JO HENWOOD reports
Hundreds of 12- and 13-year-old girls in Chester are taking part in a Government immunisation programme to combat cervical cancer.
The HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) vaccine is being offered to Year 8 pupils through schools by NHS school health advisers.
Within the next six months the girls will be given a course of three injections against the two types of HPV which are known to cause more than 70% of cervical cancers. The vaccine has the potential to save about 400 lives each year.
Schools have been informing girls about the vaccine through assemblies and presentations.
The deputy headteacher of The Queen’s School in Chester, Irene Jones, said: “Letters were sent to parents in June outlining details of the vaccine programme. In July we were visited by two school health team leaders who gave the girls a 20- minute presentation about cervical cancer and the benefits of the vaccine.
“This was followed by an animated question-and-answer session with all sorts of questions from the girls, including ‘will it hurt?’, ‘what are the side effects?’ and ‘what evidence is there that this will protect me from cancer?’”
There has been some controversy surrounding the vaccine, including the Government’s decision to use the Cerverix vaccination, which protects against two of the HPV viruses, over Gardasil, which protects against four, including the virus that causes genital warts. Although genital warts are not life- threatening there are 10,000 new cases in England every year.
Dr Colm O’Mahoney of the Department of Sexual Health (GUM) at the Countess of Chester Foundation Trust said: “It is good news that the Government has decided to introduce this vaccine for 12- and 13-year-old girls. My regret is that they didn’t choose Gardasil, which would offer the added protection against genital warts. We see about 800 new cases in our clinic at Chester every year.”
Wendy Meredith, director of public health for Western Cheshire and Cheshire County Council, defends the choice of Cerverix.
She said: “The aim of the campaign is to reduce rates of cervical cancer. The Department of Health chose the vaccine that best met the pre-set selection criteria for preventing cervical cancer. The vaccine provides protection criteria against the two types of HPV that cause more than 70% of cervical cancers. It is 99% effective.”
As HPV is sexually transmitted, the Government has also been accused of cost-cutting by not offering the vaccine to boys.
Wendy responded: “As boys do not suffer from cervical cancer, the benefits of this vaccination programme are less for boys than for girls. By vaccinating girls, however, this reduces the transmission of infections to boys, which should lead to a reduction in the rarer other forms of cancer caused by these two types of HPV in both boys and girls.”
Some religious groups are opposed to the vaccine for fear that it will encourage promiscuity. A Roman Catholic high school in Manchester recently refused permission for its girls to be vaccinated on the premises, stating a school was not the right place to receive injections.
John Murray, headteacher of Chester Catholic High School, is supporting the programme and sent a letter to parents outlining the Catholic Education Service’s view of the immunisation programme. He quoted a statement from the CES in June which said: “The availability of vaccination against HPV offers the prospect of saving hundreds of lives each year and protecting the health of many more women and the well-being of their families.”
It concludes: “There is nothing in Catholic teaching to suggest that there is anything wrong with the use of vaccination against this disease, nor does it undermine the Church’s teachings in regard to human relationships and sexual activity.Š It remains important that all safe and moral steps are taken to protect people from the virus.Š This includes good relationships education in both home and at school and also the opportunity to have this optional vaccination while a teenager.”
Erica Cowley, mother of 12-year-old Kathryn, said: “I am very pleased with the way the school has dealt with this. Kathryn and I have sat down and discussed the vaccine and she is very well informed.”
This year, only girls aged 17 and 18 will be offered the vaccination by their own GP practice as not all girls of this age are still at school.
A two-year ‘catch-up’ programme will start in 2009-10 to vaccinate girls aged 15-18. This will ensure that by summer 2011 all girls currently up to the age of 18 will be protected.
Wendy added: “I’m pleased to say that the vaccination campaign is now up and running and going to plan. Although it is early days, 88% of eligible girls who have been invited have already been immunised in local schools and I’d like to thank parents and our colleagues in schools for their support and co-operation in getting us off to such a good start.”
The second phase of the vaccination campaign is due to start on Monday, October 20, when girls in the target age group receive their second dose of the HPV vaccine.
Any girls who have missed out on their first dose of the vaccine have an opportunity to join the programme in this second phase. For further information, parents or carers should contact their daughter’s school health adviser.
According to the Health Protection Agency, the anticipated uptake rate is 90% of eligible girls by 2011.