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Continue with HPV vaccine
The efforts by the Ministry of Health to implement a programme of HPV vaccination in the primary school system is a step in the right direction. It reflects a proactive approach to public health care, which is rare in a country prone to reactive responses. Thus it is really regrettable that the programme has been stopped because of protestations by leaders of some religious institutions. The parents of the students, so deprived from protection afforded by the vaccine, should seek answers as to their real motive from those responsible for causing this hiatus.
The human papillomavirus causes genital warts and can also cause cervical cancer. Genital warts is the most common sexually transmitted infection worldwide and concerns about cervical cancer are on the rise. The HPV vaccine is an accepted and safe method for providing protection against both diseases. The most suitable age for giving the vaccine is determined to be between and 11 and 12 years and thus the most appropriate and effective method would be through the primary schools, which all children are required to attend.
Vaccination programmes in primary schools have played an invaluable role in eradicating many crippling diseases. Polio is a good example. Naturally, some vaccinations can also be administered at health centres and the offices of private doctors. But this is not effective for programmes that are required to meet the needs of a large number of people. Also, vaccinations are not always readily available at private facilities and are expensive. So the most cost effective and efficient method remains state programmes at schools.
The idea that an 11- or 12-year-old girl is to be given a vaccination to prevent sexually transmitted diseases almost invariably causes knee jerk negative reactions from parents. This is understandable and that is why a sustained programme of information and education is needed, not only for parents, but also for leaders of religious institutions for some can be impediments to implementation as has been demonstrated here and elsewhere.
In efforts to project power and keep the flock in line, the bulwarks of ethics and morality are invariably raised by men to the detriment of children, particularly girls and women. The argument that the vaccination can be viewed as license to engage in promiscuous acts does not and cannot stand the scrutiny of objectivity and reality.
Similar arguments were raised with regard to condoms and contraception and were similarly without merit. Instead of discouraging the use of protection, emphasis should be placed on healthy, safe and responsible attitudes and behaviours. In this way we can have the best of science and religion.
Preventive medicine is recognised as the best strategy to encourage healthy lifestyles and it is also economically sound as it reduces the cost, to the public health system and the private purse, of treating preventable diseases. Vaccination programmes, exercise and responsible attitudes are integral elements of this approach.
The objections raised to the HPV vaccination programme are really without merit. The programme is not an attempt to abrogate parental authority or to diminish that of religion. Rather, it is one to protect our citizens. If anecdotal and data-driven evidence is taken into consideration, such a programme would have been initiated already. The Minister of Health should be lauded for his pioneering efforts in getting this programme started.
The welfare of people must come first. Thus the denominational boards that have objected to this programme must not only withdraw their objections but actively assist in ensuring that the vaccination drive is restarted and completed. Further, the programme should be expanded to include the vaccination of boys also, to ensure an even more effective programme of preventing and reducing the spread of genital warts and incidents of cervical cancer.
• Prakash Persad,
Director, Swaha Inc.
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