Monday, 17 November 2008

A defence of the St Monica's governors

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Beady-eyed readers will have noticed, with or without interest, that I haven't been around for the past week and that our editor Caspar Melville stepped into the blogging fray in my absence. Whether you noticed or not, he's certainly given me lots to catch up on – we'll come to the antics of Britain's second-rate answer to the Westboro Baptist Church, Stephen Green, in the next post, and I'll quickly acknowledge how much I love the Bill Oddie story, but the real business of this post concerns St Monica's RC High School in Prestwich.

Earlier this year the governors of St Monica's took the infamous decision to refuse to allow the HPV vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer, to be administered on their school's premises, a decision they explained as follows: “We do not believe that school is the right place for the three injections to be administered.”

Many belived the Catholic school's decision was based on the horrifically twisted logic that immunising teenage girls against HPV, a sexually-transmitted virus, would encourage them to indulge in a spot of under-age sex, or in the words of Stephen Green (yes, him again) “Anyone giving this drug to a girl is telling her: 'I think you are a slag'.”

It was for this reason that Natalie Haynes nominated the St Monica's governors for our Bad Faith Awards. Initially our in-house bookmakers Paddy Gowers (who definitely don't just consist of me making up figures) gave the governors long outsider odds of 100/1, but they have since stunned pundits by surging to a solid 4th place with 11% of the vote.

As a result of this nomination Dale Haslam, a reporter on the Bury Times who covered the St Monica's story earlier this year, wrote to us defending the school. Here's what he had to say:

"With regards to your nomination of St Monica's High School for the New Humanist magazine Bad Faith Awards. I covered this story when it first came to light an feel many people missed the point.

The school did not ban its pupils from taking part in this vaccine. On the contrary: it was the first school anywhere in the UK to offer the vaccine in a trial earlier this year! In that trial, staff saw side effects in some of its pupils, who either went home ill the same day, phoned in sick the following day or were excused from class while they vomited or felt light headed. As a result, the school is concerned that it would face even worse problems if it did it again. It does not object to the vacinne on moral grounds (else why would it have allowed the trial?) but staff simply say a school is not the right place for vaccines.

Natalie Haynes implies it is hypocritical for the school to offer TB jabs and not cervical cancer jabs. TB jabs have been used for decades and myriad research has been done into the side effects of them - that is not the case with the cervical cancer jab. If the school allowed the vaccine to be taken on school grounds, parents would carte blanche allow it and therefore hold the school responsible should the worst happen (a child dies/becomes seriously ill due to a side effect, and let's remember the school does not have access to the pupils' medical records, so even if it did know that the vaccine, for example, made autistic pupil seriously ill, it wouldn't even know which pupils were autistic).

The school has said to parents - we don't know enough about this vaccine, so the onus is on you. Go out and find out about it and then judge whether you want your daughter to have it at your GPs surgery. It is not a moral argument."
How does this affect the governors' run for the Bad Faith Award? This all holds with their official line from the time of the decision, which stressed that it wasn't a "moral decision", but it's worth remembering what one of the governors, Monsignor John Allen, had to say about the vaccine following the pilot scheme last year:
"Morally it seems to be a sticking plaster response. Parents must consider the knock-on effect of encouraging sexual promiscuity. Instead of taking it for granted that teenagers will engage in sexual activity, we can offer a vision of a full life keeping yourself for a lifelong partnership in marriage."
Confusing business. The only school in the UK to explicitly ban the vaccine from being administered on its premises is a Catholic school with a Monsignor on its board of governors who made the above comments, yet the official line (and one reinforced by the email Dale Haslam sent us) is that the decision was based purely on medical concerns.

What do you think? Let us know by commenting on this post.


Botogol said...

Maybe the governors are individuals with different opinions don't all agree with each other - quite likly some governors favoured and voted for the same policy (against jabs) but for for different reasons. Perhaps others even voted against.

Tom Rees said...

It's absolutely a moral issue. The vaccine (Gardasil) has been extensively studied in clinical trials (over 30,000 women). The numbers show that that the benefits clearly outweigh the risks.

With any treatment you can argue that there might be something unknown that might change that balance for the worse. But equally, it could change for the better. That's the problem with unknown unknowns...

But we have to make decisions. And the morality of the decision that the school has made is that they are going to condemn some of their pupils to die unnecessarily from cervical cancer. The scientific rationale they give for this is spurious, and is a cover for the real, religious, rationale.

George said...

The occurrence of the trial seems to exonerate the school - but is it a matter of public record? Given the comments of Monsignor John Allen it's hard to see how such a trial was approved. What kind of trial was it? Who instigated and monitored it? What was its purpose? It certainly wouldn't have been a clinical trial.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh, but if we are to accept that the alleged trial is evidence of the school's support for the drug, then surely we should also expect them to make some effort to introduce measures to cater for the clearly superficial side effects rather than simply refusing to have it administered at school.

It seems to me that the principal of refusing to be complicit in the immoral acts/behaviour of others - incidentally, the same excuse offered by American chemists and doctors who refuse to prescribe birth control - is the more believable explanation. A thoroughly reprehensible excuse at that.

Nobbin said...

It seems the trial had nothing to do with the school. As much as I hate to link to the daily wail, see this article:

In their letter to parents the school wrote:

"When a pilot study was conducted in the local clinic during the last academic year..."

Local clinic... We knew there was a simple reason a trial took place...

Now it all makes sense...