Some religious schools refuse to offer the HPV vaccine

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Tens of thousands of children across New Zealand have been denied access to a vaccine that protects against a carcinogenic sexually transmitted infection after their schools pulled out of the DHB programme.

The Gardasil vaccine protects against the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cancer of the throat, anus and cervix.

Information published by NZ Doctor revealed that in 2021, in New Zealand, 53,000 fewer vaccines were delivered than in 2019.

“The total dose reduction over two years was around 78,000 – that’s over 30,000 young New Zealanders who missed out,” the report said.

READ MORE: Sexual health experts concerned about drop in young people vaccinated against HPV

But, while the bulk of this lower figure was due to disruption caused by the pandemic, a 1News investigation found that in 2021 dozens of schools voluntarily withdrew from the school-based vaccination program funded by the DHB.

The Gardasil vaccine is fully funded for ages 9-26, and since 2008 DHBs nationwide has offered a free school vaccination program for grades seven and eight.

1News spoke to a handful of women, who report that they have never been offered the Gardasil vaccine at their school since the program began in 2008.

1News filed Official Information Act requests to determine which schools were offering students access to the fully-funded vaccination program.

In 2021, 44 schools did not participate.

Most of the schools that withdrew from the program had a Christian religious affiliation.

The schools declined to comment when approached by 1News.

The director of the Immunization Advisory Center, Dr. Nikki Turner, says lack of access to school has likely contributed to the decline in the number of young people vaccinated against HPV.

“It’s much more difficult for these young people to access vaccines elsewhere, so coverage rates drop,” says Turner.

“It’s important to give it to young people around 11, 12, 13 years old because that’s where it’s most effective.”

In 2021, as the number of vaccines dwindled due to the pandemic, members of a PHARMAC vaccine subcommittee said the failure of the school-based HPV program in New Zealand may violate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Turner, who was a member of the sub-committee, said “every young person deserves two important rights, firstly to have clear, evidence-based materials to care for their own health and secondly to facilitate access to services” .

“[It] It’s heartbreaking to see people who later present with cervical cancer who didn’t know it was preventable.

Northland doctor Gary Payinda has written an open letter to Parliament calling for compulsory school participation in the vaccination programme.

“We know that 80% of us will be exposed to HPV in our lifetime, we know that if you’re a teenager we can literally prevent thousands of cancer cases,” Payinda says.

“We want to try to reduce cancer deaths in New Zealand in the years to come and we won’t get there if we put barriers in the way of HPV vaccination.”

He says religious affiliation should not give schools the right to deny their students preventive health care.

“It is unacceptable that they do this these days and completely unacceptable that they are getting taxpayers’ money to stand in the way of cancer prevention,” says Payinda.

But Integrated School Owners Association spokesman Kevin Shore disagrees.

“Integrated public schools are indeed public schools but with a particular character.

“The landlord has the right under the Integration Act to promote the beliefs of this special character,” Shore says.

This can extend to sanitary measures that prevent the sexual transmission of disease.

“Some people will see that choosing to enter into an intimate relationship has nothing to do with a communicable disease, but is choice behavior,” he says.

“Some religions might see that by actually supporting the vaccine, they might be encouraging promiscuity.”

Shore, a member of the New Zealand Catholic Education Office, says the Catholic Church does not share this view.

“The church has looked very closely at the connection between support for the vaccine and encouraging students to engage in promiscuous behavior.

“We don’t think there’s a strong connection between a 12-year-old child getting vaccinated and influencing them to engage in this behavior,” he says.

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