Immunisation rates for HPV are markedly lower for Pakeha than for other ethnicities in New Zealand

One of the last things a mother of a 12-year-old daughter probably wants to say to her daughter is that she should have a vaccination against a sexually transmitted infection. The vaccine is free but the suggestion will be difficult, no matter how poor or well-off the household may be. Yet immunisation rates for the human papillomaviris (HPV) are markedly lower for Pakeha than for other ethnicities in New Zealand.

A doctoral researcher at Massey University, Karen Page, wants to find out why. She starts with an obvious suspicion. "It's the 'white girls don't have sex [theory]'. That's what I think," she told our reporter this week. It may be worse than that. It may be symptomatic of a declining parental inclination to talk about sex at all with children reaching puberty.

The assumption may be that schools will attend to their sex education, or that there is so much sex confronting their children in modern media that the traditional parental "chat" seems quaint, awkward and superfluous. In this environment, it may seem more dangerous to urge precautions that might imply parental consent.

Many parents these days do probably put off the chat until the age at which they are more relaxed with the possibility that their teenager is becoming sexually active. But sexual counsellors will say parents with that attitude are likely to be too late. They will be certainly too late to provide their daughter with optimum immunity against HPV, which can lead to cervical cancer.

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The reason it is offered free with parental consent to schoolgirls at Year 8 is that it is most effective at their age. HPV infection is common, and though it will clear naturally in most cases, it causes about 99 percent of cervical cancer in this country. Yet, pre-teen immunisation - about 58 per cent of Year 8 girls in New Zealand - is lower than the United Kingdom (86 per cent) and Australia (70 per cent).

Normally, Maori and Pacific communities are hardest for health programmes to reach but both have responded better than Pakeha to the HPV immunisation effort, as has the Asian population. Last year, 71 per cent of Pacific girls had the vaccine, 63 per cent of Asians and 62 per cent of Maori. For the rest, predominantly Pakeha, the figure was just 52 per cent.

Young women whose parents have not taken advantage of the Year 8 programme can be immunised free up to age 20 by a GP without needing parental consent. It is a pity that any have to take that course. At Year 8, the girls will know many of their friends have permission to take this sensible precaution and wonder why their own parents have buried their heads in sand.