Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Protect your girls


There is only one thing possibly worse than watching your beloved mother die in agony of cancer, which I have. And that would be watching your child die of cancer, which I hope I never do.

I'm sure that everyone in the world would do anything reasonable - or even semi-reasonable - if it meant that there was a chance, however slim, of your child not having to die of this ghastly disease.

I'm sure reasonable people welcome advances in medical science that mean more can be done to prevent cancers developing and wreaking havoc on generations of lives.

Perhaps there are many unreasonable people out there.

Earlier this week it was revealed that "dozens" of schools had opted out of the HPV vaccine. The vaccine, which the Government will spend $177 million on in the next five years, is given to girls as young as 12, with the aim of eventually halving the death rate from cervical cancer.

A quick backgrounder: there are more than 100 types of HPV (Human Papillomavirus). They are usually common, harmless viruses, except the ones that affect the genitals and are sexually transmitted.

While low-risk HPV causes genital warts, high-risk HPV can lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina and anus in women while in men, cancers of the anus and penis are a possibility.

As many as half of all sexually active people have this virus in their system, whether or not they know about it.

Warts can be detected and treated by a doctor but sometimes there are no symptoms of this common infection. It is then up to pap smears to detect changes in the cervix that may signify the beginnings of cancer.

A good method, but not always a perfect system as recent history has shown.

Essentially, the vaccine currently being offered free to school girls makes them immune to two key strains of the HPV - the two strains known to cause approximately 70 per cent of all cervical cancer.

Again, it is not an infallible method of preventing cancer. The 12 year old age group is targeted because the vaccination is mostly effective before girls become sexually active. Unfortunately there are some girls who are already having sex at this tender age.

Furthermore, not all types of HPV are immunised against, so pap smears, heath checkups, and condom usage are all still important for the sexually active.

However, in terms of a new frontier in cancer prevention, the HPV vaccine is it. It has been approved by the US FDA for girls as young as nine, while it is also used in parts of the UK, Africa, North America and elsewhere. There is sound science behind it.

Unbelievably, several schools in New Zealand refuse to allow their girls the chance to have the vaccine.

Some say the logistics are difficult for small regional schools. Others have a problem with handing their school rolls over to district health boards. Yet another illogical use of the Privacy Act, if it is in fact the truth.

I suspect the most common reason this vaccine is barred at some schools is because it forces schools and parents to confront the fact that their teenage daughters will be having sex, if not soon, then too soon for the collective liking.

It's been proven in spots overseas that hysteria followed introduction of the vaccine - claims that it would make girls more promiscuous and start them having sex sooner were bandied about.

It may be why some religious schools in this country won't introduce the vaccine. What utter hypocritical, ignorant, and downright stupid logic.

It's the same kind of wonky reasoning that sees proper, comprehensive sex education denied to thousands of young men and women on the specious grounds that they'll suddenly become attuned to something they didn't know about before. Utter rubbish!

Those who want to do it will do it, sex education or no, certainly HPV vaccine or no.

Teenage girls have been getting pregnant, getting STIs, getting bogged down in teenage love since the dawn of man. The more ignorant they are of basic biology, the more likely they are to be unable to control the outcomes of these totally normal forays.

It's interesting to note that where the HPV vaccine was introduced in Britain there was the predictable outcry against it, until recently.

What put the hysteria into perspective was the image of 27-year-old Jade Goody, at once full of life and mother to two young boys, suddenly struck down by this most deadly of diseases. Not only did cervical screening rates skyrocket, but vaccine uptake was also boosted.

Hopefully it won't take a similar case here for people to see sense.

In my opinion schools have an obligation to offer this vaccine, even if parents opt against their daughters getting it (incomprehensible to me, but preferable to a blanket religious ban on it).

Even if it's been "too quick" an introduction, as others have claimed - although how anything can be "too quick" to save people from possibly developing cancer puzzles me.

Even if it confronts parents with the fact their little girls will be sexually active at some point in their lives (probably always too early from the point of view of their mothers and fathers!).

Almost 200 New Zealand women a year are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 60 die from it. Not a huge number in terms of some of the other cancers, but still, 60 families that have to suffer on without mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives...

Often women who are in their 30s are struck down (the other most dangerous age being after 60).

If even one woman is spared this horrible fate, the vaccine is surely worthwhile.

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

Read more by Dita De Boni

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